The O. J. Simpson trial and rotten apples

October 6, 1995

Academics are to blame for the neglect of police racism unmasked by the O. J. Simpson trial, argues Christopher Cooper. The United States scholarly community has contributed to the existence of Mark Fuhrman-type police officers. Mark Fuhrman is the Los Angeles Police Department detective in the O. J. Simpson trial who is heard on cassette tapes using racial epithets including the "n" word, as well as saying that he engaged in brutality and frame-ups. These recordings have shifted attention away from O. J. Simpson to that of the institution of policing. Attention should once again be shifted - on to academics.

Fuhrman's uninterrupted, corrupt police tenure was the result of an academia constantly reassuring policy-makers and police administrators that police malfeasance had been corrected in the early 1970s when New York detective Frank Serpico testified against his colleagues at the Knapp Commission hearings.

For these researchers, the final Knapp Commission hearing in 1972 represented the end of large-scale police corruption. Granted, many police officers (not the majority) are good, honest, and professional - and certainly, US police work has undergone change. However, many in the scholarly community exaggerate the number of benevolent law enforcement officers and positive transformations. Contemporaneously, and even worse, they proudly dismiss and ignore the evidence that shows that there are much more than a few rotten apples employed in US policing.

The published assertions of many scholars, since the early 1970s, that police work has improved, and is home to only a "few rotten apples" is very much the cause of corruption and graft in US police work. Consider that PhD research holds great weight in the US. Irrespective of whether the PhD's research methodology was sound, his/her research is accepted and lauded by lay people, police administrators, and politicians, not necessarily because this is good news, rather the academicians proffer their assertions cloaked in scholarly research. Not surprisingly, often, the PhD-authored study is afforded great deference from individuals and entities tasked with creating policies and guidelines for US police agencies.

The data, research findings, and recommendations generated in policy research by sociologists/police scholars are often used by policy-makers: ie, how much funding a law enforcement initiative or agency receives; which community policing initiative should be funded; or what project should be scrapped.

Additionally, it is relied on by police administrators in the development of policy guidelines. Considering that many academicians have shirked their duty in accurately reporting large-scale post-Knapp Commission police phenomena (ie, the burgeoning strength of the police sub-culture, brutality, frame-ups, and racial attacks by police on other police) other than community policing initiatives, deleterious police practices are common.

Sadly, many of the so-called intellectual scholars have spent the past 23 or so years ignoring the less popular literature that argues that the Knapp Commission hearings were not the final chapter as well as literature which contends that racism did not disappear following the 1960s civil rights era rioting. Had they listened to other research which disputes their conclusions of puritanical policing (having average flaws) free from pre-Knapp Commission lawlessness, they could have saved the life of New Orleans woman Kim Groves. She was gunned down in 1994 in a contract hit arranged by a policeman when she filed a complaint against him. Certainly, this is an academia which could have saved Betty Patterson of Philadelphia, a 54-year-old church-going grandmother who would not have spent three years in prison in the early 1990s after being falsely accused and convicted of being a crack dealer in a police frame-up.

Let us assume that these two citizens had complained to the police, respectively in say 1990 and 1994, when they were confronted by police actions that were considered products of a foregone era. Had we consulted the research we would have been led to believe that both of these complaints were the products of mental imbalance due to an appearance of a conspiracy theory. Let's face it: Who would have believed Kim Groves if she reported to the typical police officer that she suspected that a police officer was planning to have her killed?

Simply stated, many scholars, through scholarly presentations, have created an inaccurate picture of US policing. In other words, we should blame many scholars for planting the notion that police orchestrated frame-ups, set-ups, and conspiracies are figments of wild imaginations and paranoia. Sadly, this is scholarly literature which has been bought by the politicians, police administrators, some members of the media, and some members of the middle class and upward.

Those in American society who have not bought into this notion include many members of the middle class and below and honest cops who have had the guts and integrity to turn in a fellow officer. If you are not convinced, consider which segments of the society are most likely to interact with police officers. Second, consider the following accurate statement expressed by one cop to another in the 1981 film Fort Apache The Bronx which addressed the police subculture. "When you turn a cop in you're finished - you might as well quit the force and move out of the city - even if you get a transfer your 'rep' follows you around."

Sadly, in 1995, this statement still applies in police work. However many in the scholarly community have yet to acknowledge it-certainly, the Fuhrman tapes are a wake-up call that many of these so-called intellectuals cannot ignore.

Consider that discussions of the policy sub-culture in recent years by scholars have either been helplessly theoretical or portrayed the subculture as an indigenous, necessary, harmless workplace phenomenon. It is no wonder that cops can arrange hits on witnesses and no one, neither the media, elected officials, nor police officials will take a complaint (by an intended victim) of this sort seriously.

Had the scholars reported accurately, that this police sub-culture includes frame-ups . . . and the calculated disposal of cops labeled as "snitches," it is more likely that police administrators and politicians would have been pressured a long time ago to take allegations of conspiracies and frame-ups seriously. And, in that type of setting, a good officer feeling secure, would have turned in Mark Fuhrman and others like him a long time ago.

Scholars who choose to report on real-life phenomena (ie, policing) and engage in applied and policy research, have a duty to proffer valid and reliable research. For it is applied research and policy research which attracts media attention and guides policy-makers and administrations in developing and creating policy. In this connection, a scholar's neglect can adversely impact individuals and communities.

Christopher Cooper is a former police officer in Washington DC and is assistant professor of sociology, State University of New York College at Potsdam.

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