Fighting Police Abuse: A Community Action Manual

Document Date: December 1, 1997





Forget the Official Data
What You Really Need to Know, And Why
Where To Get The Information, And How

A Civilian Review Board
Control of Police Shootings
Reduce Police Brutality
End Police Spying
Oversight of Police Policy
Improved Training
Equal Employment Opportunity
Certification and Licensing of Police Officers
Accreditation of Your Police Department

Build Coalitions
Monitor the Police
Use Open Records Laws
Educate the Public
Use the Political Process to Win Reforms
Lobby For State Legislation


ACLU Affiliates



In the early hours of March 3, 1991, a police chase in Los Angeles ended in an incident that would become synonymous with police brutality: the beating of a young man named Rodney King by members of the Los Angeles Police Department. An amateur video, televised nationwide, showed King lying on the ground while three officers kicked him and struck him repeatedly with their nightsticks. No one who viewed that beating will ever forget its viciousness.

The Rodney King incident projected the brutal reality of police abuse into living rooms across the nation, and for a while, the problem was front page news. Political leaders condemned police use of excessive force and appointed special commissions to investigate incidents of brutality. The media covered the issue extensively, calling particular attention to the fact that police abuse was not evenly distributed throughout American society, but disproportionately victimized people of color.

But six years later, police abuse is still very much an American problem, as the following examples from three recent months demonstrate:

  • In December 1996, two men in two weeks died in handcuffs at the hands of the Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies in Florida. Lyndon Stark, 48, died of asphyxia in a cloud of pepper spray while handcuffed behind the back in a prone position. Several days earlier, Kevin Pruiksma, 27, died after being restrained by a sheriff’s deputy.
  • In January 1997, Kurt DeSilva, 34, was shot and killed by a Pawtucket, Rhode Island police officer after a low-speed car chase. DeSilva, who was unarmed, was suspected of driving a stolen car.
  • In February 1997, James Wilson, 37, an unarmed motorist, was kicked and punched by three Hartford, Connecticut police officers after a brief chase which ended in front of a Bloomfield, Connecticut police station. The beating was so severe that a group of Bloomfield police intervened to stop it. “They saw activity that appeared inappropriate,” the Bloomfield Police Chief stated. “He didn’t resist officers… He was struck.”

The fact that police abuse remains a significant problem does not mean there has been no progress. In communities all across the United States people have organized to bring about change, and some of the most successful strategies are described in this manual, now in its 3rd printing.

This manual was not inspired by, nor is it intended to generate, animosity toward the police, or to promote the perception that all police officers are prone to abuse. They are not.

Rather, it arose out of our realization that, ultimately, it will take a strong and sustained effort by community groups to bring about real and lasting reform. And it is to those efforts that this manual is dedicated.

Ira Glasser
Executive Director
American Civil Liberties Union

August 1997


police abuse is a serious problem.
It has a long history, and it seems to defy all attempts at eradication.

The problem is national: no police department in the country is known to be completely free of misconduct. Yet it must be fought locally: the nation’s 19,000 law enforcement agencies are essentially independent. While some federal statutes specify criminal penalties for willful violations of civil rights and conspiracies to violate civil rights, the United States Department of Justice has been insufficiently aggressive in prosecuting cases of police abuse. There are shortcomings, too, in federal law itself, which does not permit “pattern and practice” lawsuits. The battle against police abuse must, therefore, be fought primarily on the local level.

the situation is not hopeless.
Policing has seen much progress. Some reforms do work, and some types of abuse have been reduced. Today, among both police officials and rank and file officers, it is widely recognized that police brutality hinders good law enforcement.

To fight police abuse effectively, you must have realistic expectations. You must not expect too much of any one remedy because no single remedy will cure the problem. A “mix” of reforms is required. And even after citizen action has won reforms, your community must keep the pressure on through monitoring and oversight to ensure that the reforms are actually implemented.

Nonetheless, even one person, or a small group of persistent people, can make a big difference. Sometimes outmoded and abusive police practices prevail largely because no one has ever questioned them. In such cases, the simple act of spotlighting a problem can have a powerful effect that leads to reform. Just by raising questions, one person or a few people — who need not be experts — can open up some corner of the all-too-secretive and insular world of policing to public scrutiny. Depending on what is revealed, their inquiries can snowball into a full blown examination by the media, the public and politicians.


You’ve got to address specific problems. The first step, then, is to identify exactly what the police problems are in your city. What’s wrong with your police department is not necessarily the same as what’s wrong in that of another city. Police departments differ in size, quality of management, local traditions and the severity of their problems. Some departments are gravely corrupt; others are relatively “clean” but have poor relations with community residents. Also, a city’s political environment, which affects both how the police operate and the possibilites for achieving reform, is different in every city. For example, it is often easier to reform police procedures in cities that have a tradition of “good government,” or in cities where racial minorities are well organized politically.

The range of police problems includes —

1) Excessive use of deadly force.

2) Excessive use of physical force.

3) Discriminatory patterns of arrest.

4) Patterns of harassment of the homeless, youth, racial minorities and gays, including aggressive and discriminatory use of the “stop-and-frisk” and overly harsh enforcement of petty offenses.

5) Chronic verbal abuse of citizens, including racist, sexist and homophobic slurs.

6) Discriminatory non-enforcement of the law, such as the failure to respond quickly to calls in low-income areas and half-hearted investigations of domestic violence, rape or hate crimes.

7) Spying on political activists.

8) Employment discrimination — in hiring, promotion and assignments, and internal harassment of minority, women and gay or lesbian police personnel.

9) The “code of silence” and retaliation against officers who report abuse and/or support reforms.

10) Overreaction to gang problems, which is driven by the assumption that those who associate with known gang members must be involved in criminal activity, even in the absence of concrete evidence that this is the case. This includes illegal mass stops and arrests, and demanding photo IDs from young men based on their race and dress instead of on their criminal conduct.

11) The “war on drugs,” with its overbroad searches and other tactics that endanger innocent bystanders. This “war” wastes scarce resources on unproductive “buy and bust” operations to the neglect of more promising community-based approaches.

12) Lack of accountability, such as the failure to discipline or prosecute abusive officers, and the failure to deter abuse by denying promotions and/or particular assignments because of prior abusive behavior.

13) Crowd control tactics that infringe on free expression rights and lead to unnecessary use of physical force.


How common is police brutality? Unfortunately, measuring this problem in a scientific fashion has always been very difficult. In the first systematic study, The Police and the Public (1971), Albert Reiss found the overall rate of unwarranted force to be low — only about one percent of all encounters with citizens; even less than that by another calculation. But Reiss hastened to point out that individual incidents accumulate over time, and since poor men are the most frequent victims of police abuse, they experience both real and perceived harassment by the police.

In 1982, the federal government funded a “Police Services Study,” in which 12,022 randomly selected citizens were interviewed in three metropolitan areas. The study found that 13.6 percent of those surveyed had cause to complain about police service in the previous year (this included verbal abuse and discourtesy, as well as physical force). Yet, only 30 percent of the people filed formal complaints. In other words, most instances of police abuse go unreported.

Community activists, take note: Your local police department or local news media may produce official figures showing a low rate of alleged abuse, but those figures do not reflect unreported incidents. Moreover, a low overall rate masks the higher rate of abuse suffered by poor men — poor men of color in particular.


Obtaining the most relevant information on the activities of your police department can be a tough task. That’s the first thing to bear in mind about the “homework” community residents have to do in order to build a strong case for reform. In answer to critics, police chiefs often cite various official data to support their claim that they are really doing a great job. “Look at the crime rate,” they say. “It’s lower than in other cities.” Or: “My department’s arrest rate is much higher than elsewhere.” The catch is that these data, though readily available to citizens, are deeply flawed, while the most important information is not always easy to get.

Forget the “crime rate.” The “crime rate” figures cited by government officials are based on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) system, which has several serious flaws. To name only a few: First, the UCR only measures reported crime. Second, since the system is not independently audited there are no meaningful controls over how police departments use their crime data. Police officers can and do “unfound” crimes, meaning they decide that no crime occurred. They also “downgrade” crimes — for example, by officially classifying a rape as an assault. Third, reports can get “lost,” either deliberately or inadvertently. There are many other technical problems that make the UCR a dubious measure of the extent of crime problems.

The National Crime Survey (NCS), published by another part of the U.S. Justice Department, provides a far more accurate estimate of the national crime rate and of long-term trends in crime. But it is a national-level estimate and does not provide data on individual cities. So the NCS isn’t much help on the local level.

Forget the “clearance rate.” A police department’s official data on its “clearance rate,” which refers to the percentage of crimes solved, do not accurately reflect that department’s performance. The fact that one department “clears” 40 percent of all robberies, compared with 25 percent by another department, doesn’t necessarily mean it is more effective. There are too many ways to manipulate the data, either by claiming a larger number of crimes “cleared” (inflating the numerator), or by artificially lowering the number of reported crimes (lowering the denominator).

Forget the arrest rate. Police officers have broad discretion in making and recording arrests. The Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., which conducts research on policing issues, has found great variations among police departments in their recording of arrests. In many departments, police officers take people into custody, hold them at the station, question and then release them without filling out an arrest report. For all practical purposes, these people were arrested, but their arrests don’t show up in the official data. Other departments record such arrests. Thus, the department that reports a lower number of arrests may actually be taking more people into custody than the department that reports more arrests.

Forget the citizen complaint rate. Official data on the complaints filed by citizens regarding police conduct are important but present a number of problems. Many departments do not release any information on this subject. Some publish a smattering of information on complaints and the percentage of complaints sustained by the department. In more and more cities, a civilian review agency publishes this data.

Data on citizen complaints are difficult to interpret.

Some examples —

  • In 1990, it was widely reported that San Francisco, with less than 2,000 police officers, had more citizen complaints than Los Angeles, which has more than 8,000 officers. What that may mean, however, is that Los Angeles residents are afraid to file reports or don’t believe it would do any good. San Francisco has a relatively independent civilian review process, which may encourage the filing of more complaints. Also in 1990, New York City reported a decline from previous years in the number of citizen complaints filed. But many analysts believe that simply reflected New Yorkers’ widespread disillusionment with their civilian review board. Citizen complaints filed in Omaha, Nebraska doubled after the mayor allowed people to file their complaints at City Hall, as well as at the police department.
  • Another problem is that in some police departments with internal affairs systems, officers often try to dissuade people from filing formal complaints that will later become part of an officer’s file. And the number of complaints counted is also affected by whether or not the internal affairs system accepts anonymous complaints and complaints by phone or mail, or requires in-person, sworn statements.

Thus, the official “complaint rate” (complaints per 1,000 citizens), rather than being a reliable measure of police performance, more than likely reflects the administrative customs of a particular police department.


A. Police shootings. You need to know about police firearm discharges, which refer to the number of times a police weapon has been fired. This information is more complete than statistics on the number of persons shot and wounded or killed. (However, information on the race of persons shot and wounded or killed is important.) Particularly important is data on repeat shooters, which can tell you whether some officers fire their weapons at a suspiciously high rate.


  • Do some officers shoot more often than others?
  • Do white officers shoot more often that black officers?
  • Do young officers shoot more often than veteran officers?

The most detailed analysis of police shootings was produced by James Fyfe, a former police officer who is now a criminologist and expert on police practices. He concluded that the single most important factor determining patterns of shooting is place of assignment.

Fyfe’s findings showed that: Black and white officers assigned to similar precincts fired their weapons at essentially the same rate; since new officers are assigned to less desirable, high crime precincts based on the seniority system, younger officers shoot more often than older officers; and since a disproportionate number of black officers are young due to recent affirmative action programs, black officers shoot more often than white officers — but as a function of assignment, not race.

Fyfe found significant differences in shooting patterns between police departments. The overall shooting rate in some departments was significantly higher than in others, a disparity that he attributed to differences in department policy.

SOURCE: James J. Fyfe, “Who Shoots? – – A Look At Officer, Race And Police Shooting.” Journal of Police Science And Administration; Volume 9, December 1981; pp. 367-382.

With this information, you can evaluate the use of deadly force in your department. You can also evaluate the long-term trends in shootings. Are shootings increasing or decreasing? Has there been a recent upsurge? How does the department compare with other departments — are officers shooting at a significantly higher rate in your department than elsewhere?

B. Use of physical force. You need to know how frequently police officers in your city use physical force in the day-to-day course of their encounters with citizens. Do officers try to refrain from using such force against citizens, or do they quickly and casually resort to force?

In its report on the Los Angeles Police Department in the aftermath of the March 1991 beating of Rodney King, the Christopher Commission confirmed a long held suspicion: A small number of officers were involved in an extraordinarily high percentage of use-of-force incidents. Ten percent of the officers accounted for 33.2 percent of all use-of-force incidents. The Commission was able to identify 44 such officers who were not disciplined despite the fact that they were the subjects of numerous citizen complaints.

In 1981, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission found a similar pattern in Houston and recommended, as a remedy, that police departments establish “early warning systems” to identify officers with high rates of citizen complaints. Patterns in the use of physical force reveal a lot about the “culture” of a particular police department. Clearly, a department whose officers repeatedly engage in physically coercive conduct needs reform. Police officials often deny that their personnel are prone to using force inappropriately, so if your community believes it has a problem in this area citizens must be able to support their claims with existing data, or data they have gathered themselves.

C. Official policies. You need to know what your local police department’s formal, written policies are on how officers are supposed to behave in particular situations. How does the department treat domestic violence complaints? What is the policy on how officers are supposed to deal with homeless people? Does the department use canine patrols and, if so, under what circumstances?

In examining official policies, you need to evaluate them in comparison to recommended standards.

D. Lawsuits. You need to know how many lawsuits citizens have filed against your local police department. You’ll want to know what the charges were, the number of officers involved, whether certain officers are named repeatedly in suits, what was the outcome and, in the case of successful suits, how much the city paid in damages.

The number of lawsuits filed against a police department can be very revealing. For example, according to the Christopher Commission the taxpayers of Los Angeles spent $67.5 million between 1991 and 1995 to resolve lawsuits brought by victims of police abuse. In 1990 alone, New York City paid victims of police misconduct a record high of more than $13 million. This kind of information can be used to mobilize middle-class taxpayers and “good-government” activists, who can then be brought into a community coalition against police abuse.


These data indicate a clear pattern of racial discrimination. The disparity between whites and blacks shot and killed is extreme in the category of persons “unarmed and not assaultive.”


Person Shot and Killed
Number Shot and Killed


Armed and Assaultive

Unarmed and Assaultive

Unarmed and Not Assaultive

These are classic “fleeing felon” situations in which, prior to 1985, Memphis Police Department policy and the common law of many states permitted officers to use deadly force. In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for a police officer to shoot a suspected felon in flight who does not pose an immediate danger to the officer or public. The case — Tennessee v. Garner— involved Edward Garner, a 15 year-old black youth who, though unarmed, was shot and killed while trying to flee the scene of a suspected burglary.

SOURCE: James J. Fyfe, “Blind Justice: Police Shootings in Memphis,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 73 (1982, No. 2); pp. 707-722.

E. Minority employment. You’ll need to know how many African Americans, Latinos, Asians, other minorities and women are employed by your police department and their distribution throughout the department’s ranks. This information is useful in assessing, again, the “culture” of your local police department — is it internally diverse, fair and equitable? It also suggests how much value the department places on the “human relations” aspects of its work, and how responsive it is to community concerns.


Police business is generally shrouded in secrecy, which conceals outdated policies and departmental inertia, encourages cover-ups and, of course, breeds public suspicion. But remember: Police departments are an arm of government, and the government’s business is your business. Police policies, procedures, memoranda, records, reports, tape recordings, etc. should not be withheld from public view unless their release would threaten ongoing investigations, endanger officers or others, or invade someone’s personal privacy.

Demanding information about police practices is an important part of the struggle to establish police accountability. Indeed, a campaign focused solely on getting information from the police can serve as a vehicle for organizing a community to tackle police abuse. Regarding all of the following categories, one of the tactics your community could employ is to interest a local investigative journalist in seeking information from the police for a series of articles. Once in hand, the information your community has collected or helped to expose is a tool for holding the police accountable for their actions.


Police work remains dangerous, and many police officers contend that they need greater freedom to use deadly force today because of the increase in heavily armed drug gangs.

But in fact, police work is much less dangerous than it used to be. The number of officers killed in the line of duty is half of what it was nearly 20 years ago. According to the FBI, the number of officers killed dropped from 134 in 1973 to 67 in 1990. That reduced death rate is even more dramatic considering the increase in the number of police officers on duty in the field.

Police officers are rarely the victims of “drive-by” gang shootings. Innocent by-standers and rival gang members have been the victims.

The police don’t need more firepower.

A. Police Shootings. Virtually every big city police department has this information on hand, since officers are required to file a report after every firearms discharge. However, departments don’t usually release the information voluntarily. Strong civilian review boards in a few cities now publish the information. As for repeat shooters, this information exists in police reports, but police departments vigorously resist identifying repeat shooters. There are several ways to proceed —

  • As an organizing strategy, demand that the police department publish this data, identify repeat shooters and take appropriate remedial action (counseling, retraining, formal discipline, transfer, etc.)
  • Alternatively, since it isn’t essential that officers be identified by name, demand that they be identified simply by a code number, which can focus public attention on the problem of excessive shooters.
  • Visit your local civilian review agency, if one exists. These agencies often have the authority to collect and release a range of information about local police conduct.

B. Physical Force. There are three potential sources of data on police use of physical force —

  • Data developed by community residents.Community residents can make a significant contribution to documenting physical force abuses and, in the process, organize. They can bear witness to, and record, abuse incidents, take information from others who have witnessed incidents, refute police department arguments that there is no problem and help document the inadequacies of the police department’s official complaint review process. Police Watch in Los Angeles compiles such data. Police Watch can be contacted at 611 South Catalina, Suite 409, Los Angeles, CA 90005; (213) 387-3325. Check with your local ACLU to see if an organization in your community does the same.
  • Formal complaints filed by citizens. Most police departments do not make this information public. Some publish summary data in their annual report, so consult that document. In a number of cities, civilian review agencies publish it, so check with that agency in your city. The annual reports of the New York City Citizen Complaint Review Board (CCRB) and San Francisco’s Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC) provide fairly detailed summaries.
  • Internal police reports. An increasing number of police departments require officers to fill out reports after any use of physical force. This is a larger set of data than the citizen complaints would provide, since many citizens don’t file complaints even when they have cause to do so. Ask to see physical force reports.

C. Official Policies. Your police department has a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) manual (it may have another title) that contains the official policies of the department. The SOP manual is a public document and should be readily available. Some departments place current copies in local libraries.

Others treat it as an internal document not available to the public — a practice which is unacceptable. Demand to see the manual, if your department withholds it. As a last resort, you may be able to file suit under your state’s open records law to obtain the SOP manual.

D. Lawsuits. Lawsuits brought against police departments are matters of public record. Records of suits brought in state courts reside at your local state courthouse; of suits brought in federal district court, at the nearest federal courthouse. The Lexis computer database is a source of published opinions in civilian suits brought against the police. However, collecting information from any of these sources is a very laborious task. It’s better to contact your local ACLU affiliate and/or other relevant public interest groups, which may have done most of the work for you. In the back of this manual, find the name and address of your local ACLU and other organizations.

E. Minority Employment. Official data on this issue are generally available from your local police department. If the police stonewall, you can get the information from the city’s personnel division. The point is to evaluate the police department’s minority employment record relative to local conditions. Using current data, compare the percentage of a particular group of people in the local population with that group’s representation on the police force. If, for example, Latinos are 30 percent of the population but only 15 percent of the sworn officers, then your police department is only half way toward achieving an ideal level of diversity.


Civilian review of police activity was first proposed in the 1950s because of widespread dissatisfaction with the internal disciplinary procedures of police departments. Many citizens didn’t believe that police officials took their complaints seriously. They suspected officials of investigating allegations of abuse superficially at best, and of covering up misconduct. The theory underlying the concept of civilian review is that civilian investigations of citizen complaints are more independent because they are conducted by people who are not sworn officers.

At first, civilian review was a dream few thought would ever be fulfilled. But slow, steady progress has been made, indicating that it’s an idea whose time has come. By the end of 1997, more than 75 percent of the nation’s largest cities (more than 80 cities across the country) had civilian review systems.

Civilian review advocates in every city have had to overcome substantial resistance from local police departments. One veteran of the struggle for civilian review has chronicled the stages of police opposition as follows —

  • The “over our dead bodies” stage, during which the police proclaim that they will never accept any type of civilian oversight under any circumstances;
  • The “magical conversion” stage, when it becomes politically inevitable that civilian review will be adopted. At this point, former police opponents suddenly become civilian review experts and propose the weakest possible models;
  • The “post-partum resistance” stage, when the newly established civilian review board must fight police opposition to its budget, authority, access to information, etc.

Strong community advocacy is necessary to overcome resistance, even after civilian review is established.


Civilian review systems create a lot a confusion because they vary tremendously. Some are more “civilian” than others. Some are not boards but municipal agencies headed by an executive director (who has been appointed by, and is accountable to, the mayor).

The three basic types of civilian review systems are —

  • Type I. Persons who are not sworn officers conduct the initial fact-finding. They submit an investigative report to a non-officer or board of non-officers, who then make a recommendation for action to the police chief. This process is the most independent and most “civilian.”
  • Type II. Sworn officers conduct the initial fact-finding. They submit an investigative report to a non-officer or board of non-officers for a recommendation.
  • Type III. Sworn officers conduct the initial fact-finding and make a recommendation to the police chief. If the aggrieved citizen is not satisfied with the chief’s action on the complaint, he or she may appeal to a board that includes non-officers. Obviously, this process is the least independent.

Although the above are the most common, other types of civilian review systems also exist.


  • Civilian review establishes the principle of police accountability. Strong evidence exists to show that a complaint review system encourages citizens to act on their grievances. Even a weak civilian review process is far better than none at all.
  • A civilian review agency can be an important source of information about police misconduct. A civilian agency is more likely to compile and publish data on patterns of misconduct, especially on officers with chronic problems, than is a police internal affairs agency.
  • Civilian review can alert police administrators to the steps they must take to curb abuse in their departments. Many well-intentioned police officials have failed to act decisively against police brutality because internal investigations didn’t provide them with the facts.


  1. Independence. The power to conduct hearings, subpoena witnesses and report findings and recommendations to the public.
  2. Investigatory Power. The authority to independently investigate incidents and issue findings on complaints.
  3. Mandatory Police Cooperation. Complete access to police witnesses and documents through legal mandate or subpoena power.
  4. Adequate Funding. Should not be a lower budget priority than police internal affairs systems.
  5. Hearings. Essential for solving credibility questions and enhancing public confidence in process.
  6. Reflect Community Diversity. Board and staff should be broadly representative of the community it serves.
  7. Policy Recommendations. Civilian oversight can spot problem policies and provide a forum for developing reforms.
  8. Statistical Analysis. Public statistical reports can detail trends in allegations, and early warning systems can identify officers who are subjects of unusually numerous complaints.
  9. Separate Offices. Should be housed away from police headquarters to maintain independence and credibility with public.
  10. Disciplinary Role. Board findings should be considered in determining appropriate disciplinary action.
  • The existence of a civilian review agency, a reform in itself, can help ensure that other needed reforms are implemented. A police department can formulate model policies aimed at deterring and punishing misconduct, but those policies will be meaningless unless a system is in place to guarantee that the policies are aggressively enforced.
  • Civilian review works, if only because it’s at least a vast improvement over the police policing themselves. Nearly all existing civilian review systems —
    • reduce public reluctance to file complaints
    • reduce procedural barriers to filing complaints
    • enhance the likelihood that statistical reporting on complaints will be more complete
    • enhance the likelihood of an independent review of abuse allegations
    • foster confidence in complainants that they will get their “day in court” through the hearing process
    • increase scrutiny of police policies that lead to citizen complaints
    • increase opportunities for other reform efforts.
  • A campaign to establish a civilian review agency, or to strengthen an already existing agency, is an excellent vehicle for community organizing. In Indianapolis, for example, a civilian review campaign brought about not only the establishment of a civilian review agency, but an effective coalition between the Indiana ACLU, the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other community groups that could take future action on other issues.

    Your community’s campaign should seek a strong, fully-independent and accessible civilian review system. But even with a weak system, you can press for changes to make it more independent and effective.


Considerable progress has been made in the area of police misconduct in the use of deadly force. Although the rate of deadly force abuse is still intolerably high, national data reveal reductions in the number of persons shot and killed by the police since the mid-1970s — as much as 35-to 40 percent in our 50 largest cities. This has been accompanied by a significant reduction in the racial disparities among persons shot and killed: since the 1970s, from about six people of color to one white person, down to three people of color to one white.

This progress serves as a model for controlling other forms of police behavior. And was achieved though hard work and perseverance. In the mid-1970s, police departments began developing restrictive internal policies on the use of deadly force. They adopted the “defense of life” standard: the use of deadly force only when the life of an officer or some other person is in danger. In 1985, the Supreme Court finally upheld this standard in the case of Tennessee v. Garner (see table). However, the majority of policies adopted by police departments go beyond the Court’s Garner decision, prohibiting warning shots, shots to wound and other reckless actions. Most important, these policies require officers to file written reports after each firearm discharge, and require that those reports be reviewed by higher-ranking officers.

To meet goal #2, your community must —

  • Ensure that the police department has a highly restrictive deadly force policy (see sample policy). Most big city departments do. But the national trend data on shootings suggest that medium-sized and small departments have not caught up with the big cities, so much remains to be done there. Much remains to be done as well in county sheriff and state police agencies, which have not been subject to the same scrutiny as big city police departments.
  • Ensure enforcement of the deadly force policy through community monitoring. To be accountable, the police department and/or the local civilian review agency should publish summary data on shooting incidents.

    Citizens should also be able to find out whether the department disciplines officers who violate its policy, and whether certain officers are repeatedly involved in questionable incidents.


POLICY — The Houston Police Department places its highest value on the life and safety of its officers and the public. The department’s policies, rules and procedures are designed to ensure that this value guides police officers’ use of firearms.

RULES — The policy stated above is the basis of the following set of rules that have been designed to guide officers in all cases involving the use of firearms –

RULE 1 — Police officers shall not discharge their firearms except to protect themselves or another person from imminent death or serious bodily injury.

RULE 2 — Police officers shall discharge their firearms only when doing so will not endanger innocent persons.

RULE 3 — Police officers shall not discharge their firearms to threaten or subdue persons whose actions are destructive to property or injurious to themselves but which do not represent an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or others.

RULE 4 — Police officers shall not discharge their firearms to subdue an escaping suspect who presents no imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.

RULE 5 — Police officers shall not discharge their weapons at a moving vehicle unless it is absolutely necessary to do so to protect against an imminent threat to the life of the officer or others.

RULE 6 — Police officers when confronting an oncoming vehicle shall attempt to move out of the path, if possible, rather than discharge their firearms at the oncoming vehicle.

RULE 7 — Police officers shall not intentionally place themselves in the path of an oncoming vehicle and attempt to disable the vehicle by discharging their firearms.

RULE 8 — Police officers shall not discharge their firearms at a fleeing vehicle or its driver.

RULE 9 — Police officers shall not fire warning shots.

RULE 10 — Police officers shall not draw or display their firearms unless there is a threat or probable cause to believe there is a threat to life, or for inspection.

  • The citizens of Houston have vested in their police officers the power to carry and use firearms in the exercise of their service to society. This power is based on trust and, therefore, must be balanced by a system of accountability. The serious consequences of the use of firearms by police officers necessitate the specification of limits for officers’ discretion; there is often no appeal from an officer’s decision to use a firearm. Therefore, it is imperative that every effort be made to ensure that such use is not only legally warranted but also rational and humane.
  • The basic responsibility of police officers to protect life also requires that they exhaust all other reasonable means for apprehension and control before resorting to the use of firearms. Police officers are equipped with firearms as a means of last resort to protect themselves and others from the immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury.
  • Even though all officers must be prepared to use their firearms when necessary, the utmost restraint must be exercised in their use. Consequently, no officer will be disciplined for discharging a firearm in self-defense or in defense of another when faced with a situation that immediately threatens life or serious bodily injury. Just as important, no officer will be disciplined for not discharging a firearm if that discharge might threaten the life or safety of an innocent person, or if the discharge is not clearly warranted by the policy and rules of the department.
  • Above all, this department values the safety of its employees and the public. Likewise it believes that police officers should use firearms with a high degree of restraint. Officers’ use of firearms, therefore, shall never be considered routine and is permissible only in defense of life and then only after all alternative means have been exhausted.


Your community’s principal aim here should be to get the police department to adopt and enforce a written policy governing the use of physical force. This policy should have two parts —

  • It should explicitly restrict physical force to the narrowest possible range of specific situations. For example, a policy on the use of batons should forbid police officers from striking citizens in “non-target” areas, such as the head and spine, where permanent injuries can result. Mace should be used defensively, not offensively. The use of electronic stun guns should be strictly controlled and reviewed, since they have great potential for abuse because they don’t leave scars or bruises.
  • The policy should require that a police officer file a written report after any use of physical force, and that report should be automatically reviewed by high ranking officers.

Your community’s second objective should be to get the police department to establish an early warning system to identify officers who are involved in an inordinate number of inappropriate physical force incidents. The incidents should then be investigated and, if verified, the officers involved should be charged, disciplined, transferred, retrained or offered counseling, depending on the severity of their misconduct. The Christopher Commission’s report on the Rodney King beating ascertained that L.A. police leadership typically looked the other way when officers were involved in questionable incidents, a tolerance of brutality that helped create an atmosphere conducive to police abuses.


Police spying or intelligence gathering on legal but politically unpopular activities is a problem. And it’s particularly difficult to deal with because spying, by definition, is a covert activity, unknown to either the victim or other witnesses.

During the 1970s, the ACLU and other organizations brought lawsuits against unconstitutional police surveillance in several cities around the country, including New York City, Chicago, Memphis and Los Angeles. The result was increased controls on police spying.

In 1976, Seattle residents discovered local police were spying on organizations of black construction workers, local Republican Party operatives, Native Americans, advocates for low-income housing and other activists whose conduct was perfectly lawful. In response to the revelations, the ACLU, along with the American Friends Service Committee and the National Lawyers Guild, formed the Coalition on Government Spying. After several years of hard work and lobbying, the coalition succeeded in bringing about passage of a comprehensive municipal law — the first of its kind in the country — that governs all police investigations and restricts the collection of political, religious and sexual information.

Called the Seattle Police Intelligence Ordinance, this law is a model for responsible police intelligence operations —

  • “Restricted” information (i.e., about religious, political or sexual activity) can be collected only if a person is reasonably suspected of having committed a crime, and the information must be relevant to that crime.
  • An independent civilian “auditor,” appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council, must review all police authorizations to collect restricted information and have access to all other police files. The auditor must notify the police officers who are the subjects of the unlawful investigations if violations are found.
  • Any individual subjected to unlawful surveillance can bring a civil action in court to stop the surveillance, and to collect damages from the city.


Police policies should be subject to public review and debate instead of being viewed as the sole province of police insiders. Open policy-making not only allows police officials to benefit from community input, but it also provides an opportunity for police officials to explain to the public why certain tactics or procedures may be necessary. This kind of communication can help anticipate problems and avert crises before they occur.

The Police Review Commission (a civilian review body) of Berkeley, California, holds regular, bi-monthly meetings that are open to the public where representatives of community organizations can voice criticisms, make proposals and introduce resolutions to review or reform specific police policies.

The Police Practices Project of the ACLU of Northern California successfully pressured the San Francisco Police Department to adopt enlightened policies regarding the treatment of the homeless; the use of pain-holds and batons; the deployment of plainclothes officers at protests and demonstrations; intelligence gathering; the selection of field training officers, and AIDS/HIV education for police officers. The Project has also prevented the adoption of an anti-loitering rule, a policy that would have made demonstrators financially liable for police costs, and other bad policies.

In Tucson, Arizona, a Citizens’ Police Advisory Committee was incorporated into the city’s municipal code in July 1990. Composed of both civilian and police representatives, it has the authority to initiate investigations of controversial incidents or questionable policies, and other oversight functions.

(Created by the Tucson Code, Sec. 10A-86)


1 — Consult with the governing body from time to time as may be required by the Mayor and [City] Council.

2 — Assist the police in achieving a greater understanding of the nature and causes of complex community problems in the area of human relations, with special emphasis on the advancement and improvement of relations between police and community minority groups.

3 — Study, examine and recommend methods, approaches and techniques to encourage and develop an active citizen-police partnership in the prevention of crime.

4 — Promote cooperative citizen-police programs and approaches to the solutions of community crime problems, emphasizing the principal that the administration of justice is a responsibility which requires total community involvement.

5 — Recommend procedures, programs and/or legislation to enhance cooperation among citizens of the community and police.

6 — Strive to strengthen and ensure throughout the community the application of the principle of equal protection under the law for all persons.

7 — Consult and cooperate with federal, state, city and other public agencies, commissions and committees on matters within the committee’s charge.

8 — The committee may ask for and shall receive from the Police Department, a review of action taken by the Department in incidents which create community concern or controversy.

9 — The committee shall have the authority, should it so desire, to use a specific incident as a vehicle for the examination of police policies, procedures and priorities.

10 — At the discretion and express direction of the Mayor and Council, assume and undertake such other tasks or duties as will facilitate the accomplishment of these goals and objectives.


Citizens’ groups in some communities have historically demanded more education and training for police officers as part of their efforts to solve the problem of police abuse. But today, this seems a less crucial issue in many police departments because the educational levels of American police officers have risen dramatically in recent years. In 1970, only 3.7 percent of the nation’s police officers had four or more years of college. By 1989 that figure had risen to 22.6 percent, and a whopping 65 percent had at least some college experience. The levels of education are highest among new recruits, who in many departments have about two years of college.

The training of police personnel has also improved significantly in recent years. The average length of police academy programs has more than doubled, from about 300 to over 600 hours; in some cities, 900 or even 1200 hours are the rule. As the time devoted to training has increased, the academies have added a number of important subjects to their curricula: race relations, domestic violence, handling the mentally ill, and so on.

Unquestionably, a rigorously trained, professional police force is a desirable goal that should be pursued depending on local conditions. If citizens in your community feel that this is an important issue —

  • You should aim for a first-rate police academy curriculum. The curriculum should be near the high end of the current scale — 800 hours or more. It should include a mix of classroom and supervised field training.
  • It should include training in violence reduction techniques. In addition to being given weapons and taught how to use them, police recruits should also learn special skills — especially communications skills — to help them defuse and avert situations that might lead to the necessary use of force.
  • It should include community sensitivity training. Training recruits to handle issues of special significance in particular communities can lead to a reduction in community-police tensions.
    • In the early 1990s, the ACLU of Georgia, after a series of incidents occurred in Atlanta involving police harassment of gays, helped provide regular training at the local police academy to sensitize new recruits on gay and lesbian concerns.
    • During the same period, the Police Practices Project of the ACLU of Northern California, working with other groups, organized a group of homeless people to create a video for use in sensitivity training at the San Francisco police academy.
    • In response to complaints that state police were harassing minority motorists and entrapping gay men during an undercover operation in the men’s room of a highway service area, in the late 1980s the ACLU of New Jersey joined the NAACP and the Lesbian and Gay Coalition in initiating a series of meetings with the new superintendent of the Division of State Police. The three groups now participate in a two-day seminar on “Cultural Diversity and Professionalism” introduced by the superintendent’s office. Attendance is required by all employees of the Division.

Unfortunately, even the most enlightened training programs can be undermined by veteran officers, who traditionally tell recruits out in the field to “forget all that crap they taught you in the academy.”

In San Francisco some years ago, men selected as field training officers (FTOs) were found to have some of the worst complaint and litigation records in the department. The evaluation scores they gave recruits revealed their systematic attempts to weed out minority and women officers. They labeled women recruits “bad drivers,” gave Asians low scores in radio communication and unfairly criticized African Americans for their report-writing. The Northern California ACLU’s Police Practices Project joined other community groups in successfully pressuring the police department to adopt stricter selection criteria for FTOs to ensure greater racial and gender integration, fairer evaluations of recruits and higher quality training.


Historically, police departments, like other government agencies, have engaged in employment discrimination. People of color have been grossly underrepresented, and women were not even accepted as full-fledged officers until the 1970s.

Some progress has been made in the last 20 years or so. Police departments in several cities now have significant numbers of officers who are people of color. A few departments even approach the theoretically ideal level of maintaining forces that reflect the racial composition of the communities they serve. Most departments now recruit and assign women on an equal basis with men.

Improvements in police employment practices have come about largely as the result of litigation under existing civil rights laws. However, the courts may not be hospitable to employment discrimination claims in the future. Therefore, community groups and civil rights organizations should prepare to fight in the political arena for the integration of police departments.

In the short term, the recruitment of more women and minority officers may not result in less police abuse. Several social science studies suggest that minority and white officers do not differ greatly in their use of physical or deadly force, or in their arrest practices. (Female officers, on the other hand, are involved in citizen complaints at about half the rate of male officers, according to the New York City CCRB.) Still, in the long term, an integrated police force is a very important goal for these reasons —

  • Integration will break down the isolation of police departments, as they reflect more and more the composition of the communities they serve. A representative police force will probably be less likely to behave like an alien, occupying army. The visible presence of officers of color in high-ranking command positions engenders public confidence in the ability of police department personnel to identify, on human terms, with community residents.
  • Integration demonstrates a commitment to the principles of equal opportunity and equal protection of the law. This is a crucial message for the primary enforcement arm of “the law” to send.
  • Integration might, over time, reduce overtly racist/sexist activities such as brutality, harassment, and other discriminatory tactics.


Every state now has procedures for certifying or licensing police officers. These require all sworn officers to have some minimum level of training. This was one of the advances of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

An important new development is the advent of procedures for decertifying officers. Traditionally, a police officer could be fired from one department but then hired by another. As a result, persons guilty of gross misconduct could continue to work as police officers. Decertification bars a dismissed officer from further police employment in that state (though not necessarily in some other state). Between 1976 and 1983, the Florida Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission decertified 132 police officers.

Standardized procedures for state-level certification/decertification are a worthy goal to pursue. Be aware, however, that the state commission must have sufficient power and resources to investigate misconduct complaints, and must vigorously exercise its authority. And even if it has such power, certification/decertification is only one part of the comprehensive approach that’s needed to achieve meaningful police discipline.


One result of the increasing number of lawsuits brought against police departments by victims of abuse over the past 20 years came from within the police profession. It was a movement for an accreditation process, similar to that in education and other fields, whereby the police would establish and enforce their own professional standards.

In 1979, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (COALEA) was established as a joint undertaking of several major professional associations. COALEA published its first set of Standards for Law Enforcement Agencies in 1985 and issues new standards periodically.

In deciding whether your community should press for accreditation of its local police department, keep in mind these basic points —

  • Accreditation is a voluntary process. A police department suffers no penalty for not being accredited. (In contrast, lack of accreditation in higher education carries penalties that include an institution’s ineligibility for student financial aid programs and non-recognition of its awarded credits or degrees.)
  • Current accreditation standards represent minimum, rather than optimum, goals. They are very good in some respects but do not go far enough in covering the critical uses of law enforcement powers.
  • Accreditation might make a difference in the case of a truly backward, unprofessional and poorly managed police department in that it could help stimulate much needed and long overdue changes.On the other hand, a police department can easily comply with all of the current standards and still tolerate rampant brutality, spying and other abuses.

Citizens in your particular community must decide whether, taking all of the above into account, accreditation would serve as an effective mobilization tool.


Once your community has identified its police problems and decided what solutions to pursue, an organizing strategy for securing the desired reform must be developed.

In the 1960s and `70s, the most successful method of attacking police abuse was the lawsuit. During the tenure of Chief Justice Earl Warren, landmark Supreme Court decisions that imposed nationally uniform limits on police behavior were handed down in the cases of Mapp v. Ohio, Escobedo v. Illinois and Miranda v. Arizona. Respectively, those decisions extended Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures to the states, established the Sixth Amendment right to a lawyer during police interrogations and required the police to inform persons taken into custody of their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Today, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist demonstrates repeated hostility to individual rights. Many lower federal courts, the majority of whose presiding judges were appointed by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, follow this trend. More and more, therefore, the task of opposing police abuse falls not to lawyers, but to the citizens in the communities.

The following profiles of successful organizing strategies can guide your community’s attempts to effectively challenge police abuse.


PROFILE: The Indianapolis Law Enforcement and Community Relations Coalition

The year is 1984. Galvanized by a series of brutal and unjustified police killings that have sparked tensions between the police department and the African American community, 19 civil rights, religious, professional and civic organizations form the Indianapolis Law Enforcement/Community Relations Coalition. Coalition members include the Urban League, Baptist Ministerial Alliance, Community Centers of Indianapolis, Hispano-American Center, Indiana Council of Churches, Jewish Community Relations Council, Mental Health Association, NAACP and the United Methodist Church.

The coalition, co-chaired by the Executive Director of the Urban League and a designee of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, was instrumental in the establishment of a civilian review board in 1989, despite considerable political opposition. Since that time, it has worked to strengthen the authority of that body, which still lacks jurisdiction over police shooting fatalities.

A recent series of highly publicized episodes of police misconduct, culminating in an incident in August, 1996, which newspapers dubbed “the police brawl” lent new urgency to the Coalition’s efforts. Representatives of the Coalition were tapped by the Greater Indianapolis Process Committee to serve on a Working Group of citizens charged with reviewing the Civilian Review Process and recommending changes in jurisdiction and composition. A co-chair of the Coalition served as co-chair of the Working Group.

The broad-based Coalition is credited by many for drawing attention to management problems within the Indianapolis Police Department in addition to the tensions between officers and minority communities. The Coalition’s research provided the basis for the deliberations of the Working Group; even more important, once the Working Group has delivered its recommendations, monitoring the resulting process will be the responsibility of the Coalition.

Key to the Coalition’s success has been its broadbased composition and its commitment to participatory decision-making.


PROFILE: Copwatch, Berkeley, California

Copwatch is a community organization whose stated purpose is “to reduce police harassment and brutality,” and “to uphold Berkeley’s tradition of tolerance and diversity.” Its main activities are monitoring police conduct through personal observation, recording and publicizing incidents of abuse and harassment, and working with Berkeley’s civilian review board — the Police Review Commission.

Copwatch sends teams of volunteers into the community on three-hour shifts. Each team is equipped with a flashlight, tape recorder, camera, “incident” forms (see sample form) and Copwatch Handbooks that describe the organization’s non-violent tactics, relevant laws, court decisions, police policies and what citizens should do in an emergency. At the end of a shift, the volunteers return their completed forms to the COPWATCH office. If they have witnessed an harassment incident, they call one of the organization’s cooperating lawyers, who follows up on the incident.

Copwatch holds weekly meetings, and its activists attend public meetings of the Police Review Commission. It publishes a quarterly newsletter, Copwatch Report, which features a “Cop Blotter” column that describes examples of police misconduct “gleaned from Copwatch incident reports.”

Although the group’s impact has not been studied, Copwatch activists are convinced that their monitoring activities deter and, thus, reduce harassment and abuse.


Date Time Place Officers (names & numbers) Police Car License No. Arrestee/Victim’s Name Other information Suspected charge Witnesses (names & phone numbers) Injuries? If yes, describe Photos or tapes? Does arrestee need a lawyer? Description of incident Name of Copwatcher


PROFILE: The Seattle Coalition on Government Spying

The year is 1976. During confirmation hearings for a new Seattle police chief, it comes to light that the city’s police department maintains political intelligence files on citizens who are not suspected of any criminal activity. Some time later, a local newspaper prints the names of 150 individuals that were found in police files.

A group of citizens, concerned about this clear violation of First Amendment and privacy rights, forms the Coalition on Government Spying.

One of the coalition’s first acts is to file suit under the Washington public disclosure law, seeking access to the police department’s intelligence files. Under the law, the police can refuse to disclose the files only if “nondisclosure is essential to effective law enforcement.” Since the files are purely political, the court orders full disclosure.

The coalition’s charges of abuse turn out to be well-founded. Not only do the files show that the police have engaged in unconstitutional surveillance of political activists, but they are full of inaccurate, misleading and damaging information.

The lawsuit and its revelations receive a lot of media attention, which helps build strong public support for reform. The result: Seattle enacts the first and only municipal ordinance in the country that restricts police surveillance.


Each of the 50 states has a freedom of information act or an open records law. Virtually all such laws were enacted post-Watergate, in the mid-1970s. Under these laws, community groups can request and obtain access to police reports, investigations, policies and tape recordings regarding a controversial incident, such as a beating, shooting, or false arrest. If the police refuse to disclose information to representatives of your community, that refusal in itself should become the focus of organizing and public attention. Ultimately, your community can sue to compel disclosure, unless the records you seek are specifically exempted.


General state policy on public records.

It is the policy of this state that all state, county, and municipal records shall at all times be open for a personal inspection by any person.


  1. “Public records” means all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings or other material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency.
  2. “Agency” shall mean any state, county, district, authority or municipal officer, department, division, board, bureau, commission or other separate unit of government.

Inspection and examination of records; exemptions.

  1. Every person who has custody of public records shall permit the records to be inspected and examined by any person desiring to do so, at reasonable times, under reasonable conditions. The custodian shall furnish copies or certified copies of the records upon payment of fees.
  2. All public records which presently are provided by law to be confidential or which are prohibited from being inspected by the public, whether by general or special law, shall be exempt from the provisions of subsection 1.


PROFILE: Police Practices Project, ACLU of Northern California

The Police Practices Project conducts, among other activities, education programs to teach citizens about their constitutional rights. One aspect of the police abuse problem, the project believes, is that the police tend to abuse certain people partly because they think these individuals don’t know their rights, or don’t know how to assert their rights. The project also believes that its programs have the added advantage of recruiting groups and individuals to work in police reform campaigns.

The project, working with other groups, has sponsored training programs for homeless people, as well as for advocates and service providers for the homeless. The training included the distribution of copies of police policies, information on homeless people’s legal rights, suggestions on how to observe and record police misconduct and presentations by members of the local civilian review agency. A videotape was made of one of the project’s training sessions for use by other groups outside the Bay Area.

The project also publishes wallet-size cards in English, Spanish and Chinese that inform citizens about what to do or say in encounters with the police. These cards have been widely distributed in the community. (One card-holder reported that he pulled out his card when confronted by a police officer, only to have the officer reach into his wallet and pull out his own copy of the same card!) The ACLU National Office has created a similar card, with a national scope. (You can download a copy to print out below.)

The project believes that individual citizens and community groups become informed about police policies just by participating in the preparation of educational materials and training sessions. That participation also fosters awareness about particular areas of police practice that need reform. Most important, education empowers even the most disenfranchised people and helps deter the police from treating them abusively.



PROFILE: The New York Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for a “Real Civilian Review Board”

The time is August 1988; the place, New York City. Manhattan’s Lower East Side is rocked by one of the most serious outbreaks of police violence in years. Declaring a curfew, the police begin to eject homeless people and their supporters from Tompkins Square Park. Fifty-two people, most of them innocent bystanders, sustain serious injuries at the hands of the police in the ensuing violence. Much of the violence is recorded on video. Yet the officers who are guilty of misconduct go virtually unpunished; only one receives more than a 30-day suspension from the force.

The city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) comes under heightened scrutiny. Although it was established in the early 1950s and gradually strengthened over the years, the CCRB is still criticized for its lack of independence and secretive proceedings. Half of its 12 members are appointed by the mayor, the other half by the police commissioner. Most of the CCRB’s investigators are police officers.

In the wake of the Tompkins Square events, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) spearheads “A Campaign for a Real Civilian Review Board” and organizes a coalition of civil rights organizations to back it up. The goal of the campaign is the establishment of a new, all-civilian CCRB that will be totally independent of the police department.

During 1991, the campaign calls on the city’s community boards to pass resolutions in support of “a real CCRB.” (The community boards are elected bodies that have advisory jurisdiction over a variety of local matters, such as zoning and land use). Campaign spokespeople debate police department representatives before some 30 community boards throughout the city, and 19 boards pass resolutions calling for revisions of the present system (see box below). Each board that passes a resolution becomes a member of the campaign coalition.

Coalition members set up tables at street fairs and other community events to collect signatures on petitions for “a real CCRB.” More than 1,000 signatures are collected.

The NYCLU, after garnering this broad support, develops legislation for submission to the City Council. The bill is endorsed by 14 Council members and is adopted.


Adopted by Community Board #9, Serving Hamilton Heights/Manhattanville & Morningside Heights New York City

Whereas, many New Yorkers are concerned about the independence and effectiveness of the present Civilian Complaint Review Board; and

Whereas, with the proposed hiring of 9,600 new police officers, unfortunately, there may be a wider possibility of alleged police abuse; and

Whereas, if alleged police abuse has been charged, New Yorkers should have an effective government review agency that will render fair and full investigation and hearing of their allegations without pressure from the Police Department now, therefore, be it

Resolved, that the new board should have investigators and board members that are civilians with no allegiances to the Police Department and should have the power to subpoena witnesses to insure cooperation from the police officers or other concerned individuals. It should hold regular public hearings and maintain procedural safeguards to protect the rights of civilians and police officers. It should have expanded jurisdiction that includes all police and peace officers employed by the City and quasi-city agencies; and in adopting this resolution we are following the lead of Community Boards #4, #11 and #12.


PROFILE: The ACLU of California’s Legislative Approach to Police Misconduct

The ACLU’s affiliates in Southern California, Northern California and San Diego developed a model state law to address the problem of police abuse. Their proposed legislation includes the following —

  • Establishing an Office of the Special Police Prosecutor to prosecute cases of police abuse. Independent prosecutors are needed because conventional city and county prosecutors are reluctant to bring charges against the same police officers they rely on for evidence in other criminal cases;
  • Establishing state-mandated civilian police review boards for local police;
  • Breaking the “code of silence” by making it a crime for a police officer to fail to report criminal wrongdoing by another officer. This provision would also protect a reporting officer from retaliation;
  • Requiring statewide data collection on police abuse and misconduct;
  • Restricting the use of force and “pain compliance” techniques;
  • Breaking down the wall of secrecy that shields complaints of police misconduct and most complaint investigative processes from public scrutiny and oversight.

Although the proposal has not yet been adopted, ACLU lobbyists have waged a largely successful battle against a flood of dangerous bills introduced into the California Legislature by police lobbyists. In the process, the ACLU has learned that an informed presence in state legislatures is essential to counteracting well-funded and influential police lobbies that sometimes oppose or undercut reform efforts.

(provided by the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties)

Thank you for contacting the ACLU. Your information is very important to us in our effort to monitor police abuse in your community. If you have been a victim of police misconduct and wish to pursue the matter in any manner, you should first contact an attorney to advise you. Nothing that is written in these tips is intended to constitute legal advice, which can only come from an attorney experienced in this area of law. The San Diego County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service maintains a panel for referrals of attorneys in this area of law. The number of the referral service is 231-8585.

If you believe you have been the victim of police abuse or misconduct and would like to take action, some of the possible options are —

  1. — Pursue your case formally through the municipal, superior, or federal court systems (normally an attorney is necessary).
  2. — File a complaint with the law enforcement agency involved (addresses and phone numbers are in the phone book). Your complaint should be made in writing by sending a letter to the chief of police or the head of the law enforcement agency involved. Your complaint does not need to be submitted on police department forms — a letter will suffice. The letter should specify what your complaint involves (e.g., false arrest, excessive force, improper procedures, etc. ) A copy should be sent to the Internal Affairs Division of the law enforcement agency. Make sure to keep a copy for yourself.
  3. — Report the incident to one of the two law enforcement civilian review boards in the San Diego area — one for the County of San Diego (typically for matters involving the San Diego Sheriff’s Department or Probation Department — phone number 685-2200) and the one for the City of San Diego (for matters involving the San Diego Police Department — phone number 236-5933).
  4. — Take the law enforcement officer(s) to small claims court to recover damages you have suffered.

You may want to try one or more of these options to vindicate your rights. An attorney can help you decide among these options by explaining what is involved with each, and we urge you to consult one before proceeding. If you decide to pursue your claim you must take action quickly because the law imposes severe time limits for nearly every option listed above. If you do not comply with those time limits you will lose your right to take any action. Once again, an attorney experienced in this area of law can advise you regarding the time limits and your rights with respect to them.


Keep your eye on the big picture. On the one hand, each individual reform is only one step on a long road to correcting the deeply entrenched problem of police misconduct; on the other hand, important and genuine reforms can be won.

A well-organized, focused campaign against police abuse can draw broad community support. The key is to transform that support into realistic demands and develop strategies that turn those demands into concrete reforms.

We hope the information and advice contained in this manual inspires and equips your community to effectively tackle the problem of police misconduct from the grass roots up. Reform of police practices is in the best interests of every American, including the men and women in blue.

You have our best wishes for success. Keep in touch.



American Civil Liberties Union. On The Line: Police Brutality and its Remedies. New York. April 1991. The ACLU’s response to the Rodney King beating. Case studies and recommendations for local and federal remedies.

ACLU of Southern California. The Call for Change Goes Unanswered. March 1992. A year after Rodney King beating, this study, based on original research, reveals that there has been little improvement in the responsiveness of the LA Police Department to citizen complaints.

ACLU of Southern California. Pepper Spray Update: More Fatalities, More Questions, June 1995. Original research establishes that pepper spray can be fatal, and ACLU makes recommendations to avoid further tragedies.

ACLU of Washington. A Call for Accountability: Steps to Reform Investigations of Police Misconduct. August 1993. Critique of Seattle Police Department’s handling of civilian complaints and recommendation that an independent civilian review board be established.

ACLU of Washington. Coalition on Government Spying: Seattle’s Surveillance Ordinance. March 1980. Describes events leading up to city’s adoption of law that limits police surveillance of citizens.

American Friends Service Committee. The Police Threat to Political Liberty. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 1979. Comprehensive report on police spying, with separate chapters on Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Jackson, Mississippi.

Bouza, Anthony. The Police Mystique: An Insider’s Look at Cops, Crime and the Criminal Justice System. New York. Plenum Press. 1990. The author, retired police chief of Minneapolis and long considered an innovative thinker, analyzes what’s wrong with American policing.

Bureau of Justice Statistics. Criminal Victimization in the United States, 1989. U.S. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C. 1991. National crime survey published annually by U.S. Department of Justice.

Chevigny, Paul. Cops and Rebels: A Study Of Provocation. Pantheon. New York. 1972. Case study of police infiltration and disruption of the Black Panther Party in New York City.

Chevigny, Paul. Police Brutality in the United States: A Policy Statement on the Need for Federal Oversight. Human Rights Watch. New York. 1991. Review of potential federal remedies for police misconduct. Published in response to the Rodney King incident.

Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. Standards for Law Enforcement Agencies. These official standards for police departments are the bare minimum. Revised regularly.

Committee on the Judiciary of the U.S. Senate. Freedom of Information: A Compilation of State Laws. U.S. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C. 1978. Comprehensive survey of state open records laws.

Compendium of International Civilian Oversight Agencies. International Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Evanston, Illinois. 1990. Summaries and excerpts of materials on selected civilian review systems. Includes chart that compares systems.

COPWATCH Report. 2022 Blake Street, Berkeley, CA 94704. Quarterly newsletter published by community-based, volunteer organization that monitors police activity.

Couper, David C. How To Rate Your Local Police. Police Executive Research Forum, 1983. Brochure that examines the issues of leadership, policy and organizational characteristics of police agencies. Useful because it goes beyond such traditional methods of evaluating police departments as the crime rate, number of arrests, clearance rate, ratio of officers to citizens and response time.

Donner, Frank. Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America. University of California Press. Berkeley. 1990. Epic study of police role in suppressing grass roots social protest.

Fyfe, James J. “Administrative Interventions on Police Shooting Discretion: An Empirical Examination.” Journal of Criminal Justice #7 (Winter 1979). pp. 309-323. The first and still the most important study of the impact of restrictive shooting policies on police use of deadly force.

Geller, William A. “Deadly Force: What We Know.” Journal of Police Science and Administration; Volume 10 (1982); pp. 151-177. An important, very informative work about the use of deadly force by police officers.

Goldman, Roger and Puro, Steven. “Decertification of Police: An Alternative to Traditional Remedies for Police Misconduct.” Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly #15 (Fall 1987). pp. 45-80. The authors, based in St. Louis, are the nation’s leading experts on police decertification.

Goldstein, Herman. Problem-Oriented Policing. McGraw-Hill. New York. 1990. The most important new concept in policing discussed by one of its creators.

Matulia, Kenneth J. A Balance of Forces: Model Deadly Force Policy and Procedure. Second edition. International Association of Chiefs of Police. Gaithersburg, Maryland. 1985. Presents comparative data on use of deadly force.

Minneapolis Police Civilian Review Working Committee. A Model for Civilian Review of Police Conduct in Minneapolis. Minneapolis, Minnesota. September 1989. Report to Mayor and City Council by special committee formed to propose specific structure for a new civilian review system. Analysis and evaluation of competing arguments regarding authority and role of civilian review.

New York Civil Liberties Union. Police Abuse: The Need for Civilian Investigation and Oversight. New York. 1990. NYCLU’s report and recommendations following the local Civilian Complaint Review Board’s whitewash of a police riot that took place in Tompkins Square Park, in downtown New York City.

Pate, Anthony and Edwin E. Hamilton. The Big Six: Policing America’s Largest Cities. Police Foundation, 1991. Impressive report on the police departments of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Houston. Uses statistical analysis to compare departments’ performance in many areas — firearm discharges; citizen complaints; race, gender and other characteristics of personnel; expenditures per citizen; recruitment, selection and entry requirements; salaries and benefits.

Reiss, Albert J. The Police and the Public. Yale University Press. New Haven, Connecticut. 1971. The most comprehensive sociological study of routine police work, based on direct observations.

Report of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department. Los Angeles. July 1991. Official report of the civilian commission established to investigate the LAPD following the Rodney King beating in March 1991. Includes recommendations for L.A. police reforms.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Public Complaints Commission.Federal and Provincial Police Oversight Legislation: A Comparison of Statutory Provisions. Ottawa, Canada. 1991. Extensive comparison charts on legislation that provides for Canadian civilian review systems. Updated periodically.

Sherman, Lawrence W. and Ellen G. Gohn. Citizens Killed By Big City Police, 1970-1984. Crime Control Institute. Washington, D.C. 1986. Presents comparative data on police use of deadly force.

Sherman, Lawrence W. and Barry Glick. The Quality of Police Arrest Statistics. The Police Foundation. Washington, D.C. 1984. Comparison study of how different police departments record arrests, and the impact different practices have on arrest statistics.

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Who Is Guarding the Guardians: A Report on Police Practices. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C. 1981. A comprehensive review of police misconduct with the most complete set of recommendations to be found anywhere. Based on Civil Rights Commission hearings on the Philadelphia and Houston police departments.

Walker, Samuel. “The Effectiveness of Civilian Review: Observations on Recent Trends and New Issues Regarding the Civilian Review of the Police,”American Journal of Police, Vol. XI, No 4 1992.

Many archival documents, as well as up-the-moment information pertaining to policing issues and other matters of criminal justice can be found through the ACLU online at <> on the internet, or on America Online at keyword: ACLU.


American Friends Service Committee
Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project
3515 Allen Parkway
Houston, TX 77019
Tel: (713) 524-5428
Monitors abuses by Immigration and Naturalization Service, Border Patrol and other agencies. Model computerized tracking program for incidents of abuse.

Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (COALEA)
4242-B Chain Bridge Road
Fairfax, VA 22030
Tel: (703) 352-4225
Private accrediting board for law enforcement agencies. Organized and supported by law enforcement agencies. Publishes a set of accreditation standards.

Community United Against Violence (CUAV)
514 Castro Street
San Francisco, CA 94114
Tel: (415) 864-3112
Lesbian/gay rights advocacy organization. Extensive experience conducting law enforcement sensitivity training on lesbian/gay issues.

2022 Blake Street
Berkeley, CA 94704
Tel: (510) 548-0425
Community-based volunteer organization which monitors police activity in an effort to preserve the rights of all citizens, including the homeless, to fair treatment under the law.

International Association For Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (IACOLE)
1204 Wesley Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
Tel: (312) 353-4391
Professional association of persons involved in civilian review of the police. Membership consists primarily of staff members of local civilian review agencies. Annual meeting. Newsletter. Periodically publishes a compendium of civilian review agencies.

International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)
13 Firstfield Road
P.O. Box 6010
Gaithersburg, MD 20878
Primary professional association for chiefs of police. Traditionally dominated by chiefs from small town police departments.

International Union of Police Associations (IUPA)
1016 Duke Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
Tel: (703) 549-7473
National federation of local police unions. Does not represent all local unions.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
4805 Mt. Hope Drive
Baltimore, MD 21215
Tel: (301) 358-8900
Civil rights organization with chapters across the country. Promotes civil rights through litigation, lobbying and community organizing.

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
1110 Vermont Avenue, N.W., Suite 1150
Washington, D.C. 20005
Tel. (202) 872-8688
Develops public policy recommendations on matters pertaining to the criminal justice system and lobbies Congress.

National Black Police Association (NBPA)
3251 Mt. Pleasant St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20010
Tel: (202) 986-2070
Association of Black police officers. Resource for community groups working on police abuse issues. Speakers. Brochure on how to handle encounters with police, entitled, “What To Do When Stopped by the Police.”

National Coalition for Police Accountability (NCPA)
59 E. Van Buren, Suite 2418
Chicago, IL 60603
Tel: (312) 663-5392
New coalition of groups working on police abuse issues. Members include legal, advocacy, victims, minority police and religious organizations. Plans for annual conference, newsletter and other forms of networking.

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
1734 14th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20009
Tel: (202) 332-6483
Civil rights organization that promotes freedom and equality for lesbians and gay men. Its Anti-Violence Project publishes an annual report on “Anti-Gay/Lesbian Violence, Victimization & Defamation” and a pamphlet, “Dealing With Violence: A Guide for Gay and Lesbian People.”

National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE)
908 Pennsylvania Avenue, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20003
Tel: (202) 546-8811
Non-profit organization of professional law enforcement officials dedicated to improving the quality of police services for all citizens.

National Urban League
500 E. 62nd Street
New York, NY 10021
Tel: (212) 310-9000
Civil rights organization that focuses on the economic condition and empowerment of the African American community.

Police Executive Research Forum (PERF)
2300 M Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20037
Tel: (202) 466-7820
Professional association of police chiefs from the big cities in the United States. Conducts research and management consulting. Issues position papers and policy statements on important issues in policing.

Police Foundation
1001 22nd St., N.W., Suite 200
Washington, D.C. 20037
Tel: (202) 833-1460
Non-profit consulting group, primarily engaged in research and demonstration projects on innovative police programs. Involved in some of the most important research projects in policing since the 1970s.

Police Watch
611 S. Catalina, Suite 409
Los Angeles, CA 90005
Tel: (213) 387-3325
Model legal referral program for victims of police abuse. Some training for police abuse litigators. Data base on incidents of abuse in Southern California.

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