On February 28, 2013, the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies in Washington, D. C., sponsored a presentation called Crime, Violence, and Insecurity in Central America, based on the findings of the Latin American Public Opinion Project, based out of Vanderbilt University. The presentation dedicated considerable amount of time to the discussion of the effect of police corruption on a community’s level of trust. They also looked at some of the factors that seem to affect trust in the police, such as race, language, and economic status. The presentation summarized the results of their 2012 polls. The data reported echoes a lot of the findings from their 2011 report, “Trust in the National Police.”[i] The report states the seemingly universally accepted assumption that: “Trust in the police is important because security is one of the principal directives of a sovereign state.” Both reports indicated that young males in urban centers were more likely to face police abuse.
This led med to think about another region that has historically shown low levels of trust in the national police: Russia. Russia presents an interesting case for comparison when it comes to the topic of police corruption. The evolution of what most specialists consider a traditional police force dates back to 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union. Theodore P. Gerber and Sarah E. Mendelson, in the article “Public Experiences of Police Violence and Corruption in Contemporary Russia: A Case of Predatory Policing?” [ii], describe the problems of police corruption in “…a global power with a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons and a relatively modernized economy…”[iii] The authors in this case emphasize how dysfunctional public institutions can impede democratic transition and exacerbate the general population’s low confidence in the police and courts.
This led me to think about one more case of “predatory policing,” the Cerro Maravilla case in Puerto Rico, back in 1978. I have to say, my family was two years away from moving to Massachusetts in 1978, I was barely ten years old and I remember the case. What I never found out was the way in which this case constituted part of disturbing police practices in the island. For those not familiar with the case, in July 1978, the police shot and killed two pro-independence activists who were on their way to sabotage satellite towers located on a mountain called Cerro Maravilla. This case led to the discovery that the police had kept secret files on citizens and organizations identified as being pro-independence.[iv] These files amounted to 1,204 dossiers about 74,412 individuals. If one keeps in mind how small the island is, geographically speaking, that represents an impressive level of surveillance on a domestic population. What I find even more surprising is that the best summary of the Cerro Maravilla case and its effect appeared in a journal dedicated to the discussion of how to preserve historical documents.
On the continental United States, citizens take positive relations with the police as a given, or at least as an achievable standard of behavior. Granted there are notable exceptions to this rule – one only needs to look at the evidence presented in the Whitey Bulger case in Boston, [v] but for the most part children in the United States grow up with a view of the police as Officer Michael, the policeman who helps the ducks make their way back to the Public Gardens in Make Way for Ducklings, or as the friendly officer who brings their police dog to meet children at public schools and cub scout pack meetings. It is almost ingrained into everyone that it is safer to dial 911 for help than not to dial. In Seattle, there is a strong tradition of civic awareness of non-corrupt public behavior, down to citizens themselves enforcing laws often ignored at other places, such as cars stopping to let pedestrians cross at crosswalks. Maybe a key to ensuring an absence of predatory policing is internalizing a cultural mythology of the importance of a trustworthy police force – as shown in the increased awareness of the importance of not just police, but First Responders, since the attacks that took place in New York, District of Columbia and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.
[i] Nabeela Ahmad, Victoria Hubickey, and Francis McNamara IV, “Trust in the National Police.”
[ii] Theodore P. Gerber and Sarah E. Mendelson, in the article “Public Experiences of Police Violence and Corruption in Contemporary Russia: A Case of Predatory Policing?” Law and Society Review, 42(1)2008, 1-43
[iii] Ibid., 37
[iv] Joel A. Blanco-Rivera “The Forbidden Files: Creation and Use of Surveillance Files Against the Independence Movement in Puerto Rico.” The American Archivist, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Fall – Winter, 2005), pp. 297-311
[v] See Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice, by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.