Police brutality is a concerning issue both in Australia and overseas.
If you’ve spent some time reading our blogs, you will be aware of the extent to which some police officers have used excessive and unlawful force when dealing with members of the public.
Innocent victims of police brutality, who often suffer serious physical and mental injuries, often have little practical recourse against police who misuse their powers.
But in an unexpected move, the city of Chicago has vowed to address its appalling history of police brutality by offering reparations to victims and requiring schoolchildren to learn about their city’s tainted past.
There are hopes that Chicago’s efforts will encourage other cities around the world to take similar steps to redress past and current injustices.
Chicago’s Horrific Past
The Chicago Police Department has long had a reputation for its unfair treatment of minority groups, particularly African-Americans, during the notorious Burge era.
Jon Burge was the Department’s Police Commander for 20 years between 1971 and 1991. During his reign, his department is alleged to have abused more than 200 black men by inflicting physical injuries to coerce them into making false confessions for serious crimes.
Numerous victims have claimed that they were beaten, suffocated, electrocuted and burned by Burge and other law enforcement officers. Some of these men ended up serving decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, while Burge’s actions were covered up.
Burge was eventually fired in 1993, but it was not until 2006 that prosecutors gathered enough evidence to prove that Burge had committed the crimes. By this time, the ‘statute of limitations’ had run out, meaning that too much time had passed since Burge’s conduct for him to be criminally prosecuted.
However, Burge was successfully sued by some of his victims and later convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury due to his unethical actions during the civil lawsuit. He was sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment in January 2011 – but continues to receive $54,000 USD each year as part of his pension.
In what many have welcomed as a positive step forward, the Chicago City Council passed a comprehensive reparations package earlier this month aimed at redressing some of the injustice suffered by victims during the Burge era.
$5.5 million will be set aside in a special fund to compensate victims, who will also be able to access counselling and free college tuition for themselves and their families. They will also receive a formal apology, and a memorial or counselling centre will be built in the city.
The city also requires eighth and ninth graders in Chicago public schools to learn about the city’s violent history of police brutality in the hope that it will empower young minds to openly discuss the importance of protecting civil liberties and holding police accountable for their actions.
Victims have openly welcomed these plans, saying it will ensure that their suffering is not forgotten and will safeguard future generations of law enforcement personnel from making the same mistake as their forbearers.
Is Education the Answer?
But others caution that the proposed education reforms may only escalate the situation and deepen the rift between police and marginalised African-American communities. Experts suggest that education may simply cause teenagers to feel hostility and resentment towards police for their past actions, which may eventually translate into physical aggression.
Besides these concerns, there are also questions about whether the measures can be effectively implemented, because teachers are not properly trained to deal with complex social issues such as how police brutality affects different social groups.
Children around the state come from strikingly different backgrounds – some are from middle-class communities and have little contact with police, while others are from low-socioeconomic communities and deal with police on a regular basis. At present, it is contended that teachers are simply not equipped to deal with social issues that affect individuals so differently.
There are also significant differences in the ways American schoolchildren learn about civil rights issues, and Chicago has a poor reputation in this department, as ‘racism and resistance to the civil rights movement is not included in major curriculum documents.’
Some have therefore expressed doubts as to whether educating youngsters about police brutality will have any positive effect.
Police Brutality Today
Although Chicago’s efforts to prevent history from repeating itself should be applauded, the bigger picture is that police brutality and excessive force continues to exist today around the globe.
Just last year in Chicago, police shot a 17-year-old boy 16 times who was alleged to have wielded a knife at officers. The boy’s family ended up receiving a $5 million compensation package, but the money does little to heal the gaping hole in his family’s hearts.
And one only has to look at the horrific fallout following the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by an officer attached to the Ferguson Police Department to see that brutality is a widespread and deep-felt problem. In the wake of that incident, police are alleged to have used excessive force against protestors – in some cases even imprisoning them – as well as harassing journalists who attempted to report on the disturbances.
Closer to home, police have continued to face numerous allegations of brutality and excessive force in recent years.
Perhaps the most publicised incident occurred during the 2013 Sydney Mardi Gras, which saw police slamming an 18-year-old man to the ground and stepping on his back.
And last year, Kings Cross police are alleged to have used excessive force in arresting a woman in Potts Point, striking her on the leg using a baton and kicking her in the head. Video footage of the incident also shows a male officer telling his colleagues to taser members of the public who move closer.
But perhaps the case of Melissa Dunn best illustrates the tragic consequences of police brutality – the 16-year-old Aboriginal girl was arrested by police in January 2012 for resisting and hindering police.
She was later found not guilty of the charges and a magistrate criticised police for using an ‘inordinate amount of force’ during her arrest after viewing footage which showed the young girl being tackled to the ground by police, placed in a headlock, and being knocked unconscious after her head hits a gutter.
Melissa tragically committed suicide three days after her trial ended.
These incidents suggest that while Chicago’s efforts to educate young people about its history of police brutality are a positive step in the right direction, more needs to be done to address the issue of police brutality in contemporary society.