President's Column: Whatever Happened to Willie Horton?

Whatever Happened to Willie Horton? Edward A. Mallett October 2000 7 When George W.'s father beat Michael Dukakis in 1988 he got great mileage out of the proposition that a violent crime by a Massachusetts parolee demonstrated the Democratic Party's incompetence. His anti-crime demagoguery connected

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When George W.'s father beat Michael Dukakis in 1988 he got great mileage out of the proposition that a violent crime by a Massachusetts parolee demonstrated the Democratic Party's incompetence. His anti-crime demagoguery connected with a vengeful public. This year, well, the candidates have agreed to a safe middle road about crime and are staying away from the subject unless asked: Gore acknowledges that the execution of a few innocent people is the cost of capital punishment, which he supports, and Bush lives in denial about the possibility that anyone in his state - and mine - was innocent of the offense for which they were executed.

Their silence is obviously based on control by their handlers, who fear allowing the candidates to engage in a discussion of the facts. Now would be a perfect time to have an informed discussion about the complex issues of crime and punishment. Recent and well-publicized events have made it painfully obvious that the use of police power is woefully flawed.

In this election season, we have followed news about appalling police misconduct, but it doesn't even merit a sound bite from the candidates, much less a position paper. In Los Angeles' Rampart Division: five officers have been arrested and criminally charged; more than a dozen face internal charges of misconduct; about 70 officers remain under investigation for a variety of alleged crimes and misconduct; and over 100 convictions have been overturned as a direct result of the scandal. In Denver: over 3000 files on police brutality claims have impounded by order of a federal judge. In Philadelphia: the videotaped beating of Thomas Jones by a gang of officers was broadcast to an astonished nation - 59 kicks in 28 seconds - and we could see more officers struggling to jump in on him. Detroit has paid out over $32 million over the past three years to settle civil rights suits against the police. And then, of course there's Mayor Rudy Giuliani's New York: clear evidence that police sodomized their prisoner in the Abner Louima case, and the fatal shootings of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond, both unarmed. Will it ever end? There's been lots of publicity, but where are those candidates?

It seems that the public finally may be getting the point: The culture of law enforcement carries special prestige, special powers of enforcement, and special discretion, which — left unchecked — runs amuck. The great injustices rarely happen before the camera. For every on-camera attack on a Thomas Jones there are thousands of beatings by police in impenetrable places beyond the reach of a lens. About this, the candidates are most assuredly not talking.

Politicians fanned the fear of crime into a near-hysteria, creating the political climate which gave birth to cushy jobs on perpetually refunded multi-agency task forces, vastly increased budgets for public and private prison contracts and a “don't ask don't tell” approach to policing. Thomas Jones, Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo are Willie Horton's legacy. No wonder the candidates don't want to talk about it.

We are in a unique position to grasp the tragic consequences of police misconduct. We both deplore the offenses — police brutality, police bribery, and false police reports — and we defend the offenders. Police officers have the same rights as all of us. Among those rights is having one of our number beside them when they stand accused. Like our other clients they are entitled to a fair trial, an aggressive defense and, if convicted, a humane punishment. They are not responsible for creating the culture in which misconduct became acceptable.

So, even if the candidates won't talk about crime and punishment, we defense lawyers must. In New York City, the police chief is the “Police Commissioner.” That title was held from 1994 to 1996 by William Bratton. He is a consultant, public speaker, columnist and commentator on the issues of safety, security, and criminal justice in America. An outspoken critic of police misconduct, he will be speaking at our Fall Meeting in New York, November 1-4, the weekend before the elections. We expect Commissioner Bratton to give us the truth about the culture of corruption in police departments around the country, and to propose solutions in which we participate.

Our business is defending people - those who don't wear uniforms and those who do. So, as an association, we should not — indeed, we cannot — remain silent. 

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