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Get Your Elbows Off The Table

The recent abuses and mistreatment of Iraqi war prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad should not come as any great surprise to Americans. It is simply, yet tragically, reflective of the types of prisoner abuses carried out by some law enforcement personnel, and occasionally entire police department divisions, within the U.S. against U.S. citizens.

A. Rafik Mohamed

Issue #70, October 2004

dogWhen I was a child, it was household policy that my parents, my two sisters, and I have dinner together every evening. Dinner was always served around 7:30, and there were no excuses for missing the meal. My father felt that this was the one time in the day that we all had the luxury of coming together as a family. During these meals and in true patriarchal fashion, my father sat at the table's head and policed our dining habits. His array of rules covered the spectrum of dining etiquette from how to hold your fork to keeping your elbows off the table. Bound by these dicta since we were toddlers, my father's watchman duties were usually fairly minimal. Occasionally, however, I would place a careless elbow on the table or stretch after a particularly satisfying meal. Immediately, my father would reprimand me, simply but firmly stating, "If you do it at home, you're going to do it when you go out." I heard this phrase dozens of times over the course of my childhood and, while I did not realize it at the time, my father had instilled in me a way for looking at the world. Simply put, bad habits that are allowed to go unchecked at home will be practiced abroad.

Using this mantra as a lens, the recent abuses and mistreatment of Iraqi war prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad should not come as any great surprise to Americans. It is simply, yet tragically, reflective of the types of prisoner abuses carried out by some law enforcement personnel, and occasionally entire police department divisions, within the U.S. against U.S. citizens. In recent hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top military officials attempted to neutralize the Abu Ghraib scandal by characterizing it as aberrant and inconsistent with how we do business at home. As Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker said in the hearings, the humiliation of these prisoners represented "the actions of a few" and was "contrary to all that we stand for."

This "few bad apples" defense of police misconduct, or in this case military police misconduct, should sound familiar as it is often the institutional response used by state and local police officials when their departments are mired in scandal caused by "the actions of a few" of their officers. For example, police officials largely characterized the beating of Rodney King by four L.A.P.D. officers as an anomaly. This is despite the fact that several C.H.P. and L.A.P.D. officers stood passively by watching the beating, and in its investigation of L.A.P.D. the Christopher Commission found that 30 percent of officers surveyed felt excessive force was a serious problem in the department. In 1999, four N.Y.P.D. officers lethally fired 41 rounds of ammunition at Amadou Diallo, an unarmed, non-combative man. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani rallied in their defense and, after all four officers were acquitted for Diallo's murder, hailed the judgment and praised the jury system.

handcuffsIn the wake of the L.A.P.D. Rampart scandal which, among other illegal behaviors, involved police officers stealing cocaine from department evidence lockers and, in one instance, shooting an unarmed man and then planting a weapon on him, a board of inquiry convened by L.A.P.D. concluded that "the Rampart corruption incident occurred because a few individuals decided to engage in blatant misconduct, and in some cases, criminal behavior." USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky conducted an independent analysis of the L.A.P.D. Board of Inquiry report and concluded that this "few bad apples" apology was insufficient. Chemerinsky reported that the L.A.P.D. minimized the scope and nature of the corruption; that it failed to recognize the problematic nature of the L.A.P.D.'s internal culture; that it failed to consider the need for structural reforms; that it minimized problems in the L.A.P.D.'s disciplinary system; and that the L.A.P.D.'s report failed to recognize problems throughout Los Angeles County's criminal justice system. Since these studies, reports have indicated that some reform efforts to curb police misconduct have reduced excessive force complaints. However, these reports also indicate that excessive force remains a problem, continues to be punished too leniently by L.A.P.D., and the amount of civil judgments against the city have not been reduced. Once again, in July of this year, an L.A.P.D. officer was captured on tape kicking and then beating an unarmed and already subdued suspected car thief.

The abuse of prisoners housed in American correctional institutions by corrections officers remains a pervasive problem within the culture of corrections in the United States. After September 11, abuses of Muslim detainees housed in federal detention centers by prison guards were reported to the Department of Justice. Similar to the events Abu Ghraib, officers were accused of physically and sexually abusing and humiliating prisoners. In January of this year, a videotape at a California correctional facility captured the beating and kicking of two defenseless inmates by corrections officers. In much the same fashion as the aforementioned police misconduct, both of these instances were neutralized by authorities as the actions of a few rogue officers rather than a problem rooted within the culture of correctional institutions.

dogClearly, excessive force, prisoner abuse, and police misconduct continue to be mainstays of U.S. law enforcement culture. And, as my father unwittingly prophesied during our family dinners, if our behavior at home in the U.S. criminal justice system is any indication of what is taking place abroad, it is unlikely that the current scandal at Abu Ghraib is the only incident of prisoner abuse in Iraq. The horrid images of mistreatment by U.S. military police being broadcast around the globe have already proved damaging to U.S. interests overseas. However, an even greater threat to our nation will come if we fail to quickly and comprehensively deal with these acts of misconduct by trivializing them as isolated incidents and "the actions of a few." Minimizing the scope of the problem, as we tend to do at home, will only cause the international community to lose more respect for our peacekeeping efforts abroad than they already have, our military personnel will face even more difficulty and danger in carrying out their duties than they already are experiencing, and we will continue to lose the trust of our already dwindling pool of allies. Hopefully, as my father sought to do through his dinnertime admonishments, we can use these most recent unfortunate events as an opportunity to modify our behavior, both at home and abroad, so that we will not make the same mistakes in the future.

A. Rafik Mohamed is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of San Diego. He received his Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from the University of California, Irvine. He specializes is issues of race, law, and inequality in the justice system. He also co-authored "Freedom of Speech: Just Watch What You Say" with Niaz Kasravi, Bad Subjects 63.

Copyright © 2004 by A. Rafik Mohamed. Archaic graphics from clip archives. All rights reserved.