Americans live under the protection of 665,000 sworn police officers. Just imagine if even 1 percent of those officers were abusive or corrupt.
That’s an awful lot of rotten apples. It works out to some 6,650 people, armed and serving under the imprimatur of the law, who are capable of creating damage on a daily basis. The implications are staggering.
Even if only a few of America’s officers have attitudes mirroring those of former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman, the streets of America are far more dangerous that most of us realize.
In explosive tapes played during O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, Fuhrman spewed out his hatred of blacks and other minorities and arrogantly described how police routinely had flouted the law when dealing with the public. “You’re God,” he boasted in describing his behavior.
There is a disturbing tendency by many Americans to dismiss the misbehavior of Fuhrman and his ilk and to seek refuge in the view that “most police officers are honest.”
While this is a view that I share, I strongly reject the cavalier manner in which it is invoked to dismiss the problem of dishonesty and abuse by some officers as nearly inconsequential.
Far from it.
Police misconduct should be of major concern to every citizen because officers generally receive the benefit of the doubt in court and some manipulate the legal process, sometimes with devastating results.
Philadelphia’s Betty Patterson is a case in point.
The 54-year-old mother spent three years behind bars after a conviction on charges of selling illegal drugs from her home. Patterson was released only after two officers confessed they had planted the drugs in a bureau in her home a short while before the illegal substance was “discovered.”
An even more appalling situation involves Neil Ferber, an innocent man sentenced to death in 1981 for murders he did not commit. A Philadelphia judge and jury found that Ferber had been framed by Philadelphia police officers. His case will endure as a disgusting example of what a relatively few law enforcement officials are capable of doing.
The presiding judge called it “a Kafkaesque nightmare of the sort that we normally would characterize as being representative of the so-called justice system of a totalitarian state. Unfortunately, and shamefully, as the trial evidence showed, it happened here” in the United States.
Leaders of a group called Asian Americans United have told me of continued mistreatment of Asian youths by Philadelphia police officers.
In recent years, a growing number of whites also have experienced mistreatment by police as well.
A white physician friend of mine was ordered out of his car and frisked after he asked the officer why he had been stopped. That’s not a major event, but one that more and more Americans experience from a minority of angry or power-hungry individuals in uniform.
All but one of my personal experiences with police officers have been positive. In that one instance, I was arrested and handcuffed on my own lawn and was told by the officer: “You have no business in this neighborhood. You’re under arrest.”
I offered identification. He refused it, and although he didn’t draw his weapon, he placed his hand on it to make a point.
I eventually sued the Central New Jersey township and the officer and collected. But the experience made me wonder how many others, trapped in similar circumstances, might have grown frightened, attempted to run and wound up being severely injured or even dead.
Police misconduct by a small percentage of officers occurs on a regular basis, not only in Philadelphia and Los Angeles but also all across America.
In thinking about Philadelphia’s rogue cops, I have to ask how they could go about planting evidence, beating people, extorting money, stealing drugs and keeping a stash of cocaine in the 39th Police District for several years without even a sergeant having a clue as to what they had been doing.
I can understand a commissioner, with broad responsibilities, not having knowledge of how individual officers are operating on a daily basis. But if sergeants and lieutenants don’t have a clue, they ought to be fired.
I had many disagreements with Frank Rizzo, the police commissioner who was mayor of Philadelphia from 1973 to 1980. Although corruption and abuse existed on his watch, every officer who abused his responsibility and trust knew the consequences would be tough if Rizzo found out.
But somehow, that message has been lost.
What most people don’t understand is that despite an overwhelming preponderance of honest police officers, if abuse by even relatively few uniformed men and women is allowed to go unchecked, nobody in America, regardless of color or status, will be safe for very long.