U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

Revisiting Who Is Guarding the Guardians? 

Chapter 1


The report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights titled Who Is Guarding the Guardians?[1] remains a major publication on police practices and civil rights almost 20 years after its release. Many of its findings and recommendations still ring true today. The present publication seeks to build on the groundwork created by Guardians and is not intended to replace Guardians or its research and analysis, which remain relevant to the examination of current police practices. With this report, the Commission seeks to achieve two goals: (1) expand upon the principles and findings outlined in Guardians, and (2) explore how police practices have evolved since the publication of Guardians.

Despite major improvements in police practices since Guardians, reports of alleged police misconduct and abuse continue to spread through the nation. As a major policy issue, police misconduct has not disappeared, but rather gained more of a spotlight since Guardians with the advent of issues such as racial profiling. The following stories represent a fraction of the incidents that have led up to the publication of this report. 

The mere mention of the name Rodney King conjures the shocking images captured by an amateur video of an African American man surrounded and beaten by Los Angeles police officers.[2] 

In 1997, the beating and assault of Abner Louima while in custody in a New York City precinct stunned the country.[3]

In 1998, two New Jersey state troopers opened fire into a van with three African American and one Hispanic male passengers on the New Jersey Turnpike. The van was allegedly speeding at a rate of 19 miles per hour above the 55-miles-per-hour speed limit.[4] The troopers claimed that the 11 shots fired into the van were in self-defense.[5]

Four other New Jersey state troopers escaped federal prosecution for opening fire into a car in 1999 after the driver failed to stop for an alleged traffic violation. The driver allegedly led the police on a 15-mile chase. The evidence was insufficient to sustain federal criminal civil rights claims.[6]

Later, Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant, died in the vestibule of his home when four New York City police officers fired 41 shots at him. The officers involved in the fatal shooting of Mr. Diallo were acquitted of all charges.[7]

The Los Angeles Police Department, already battered with numerous allegations of misconduct, found itself involved in another scandal this time involving its Rampart Division. Officers were charged with planting evidence on suspects and covering it up. [8] The scandal reinforced the public's perception that corruption still plagues the police department.[9]

 The New York City Police Department faced allegations in June 2000 that its officers did not respond to the cries for help from women in Central Park who were being sexually assaulted at a public event.[10]

In July 2000, a New York City grand jury cleared an undercover narcotics officer in the March shooting of an unarmed security guard.[11] The guard, Patrick Dorismond, became upset when an undercover police officer approached him to buy drugs.[12]

In Philadelphia, Thomas Jones was allegedly beaten by a group of police officers that caught him after two car chases, one involving Jones driving a police vehicle.[13]

On the same day as the Philadelphia incident, police officers in Lawrenceville, Georgia, were videotaped beating Marshall Dwight Studdard. Mr. Studdard allegedly led police on a three-county chase when police finally caught up with him.[14]

Former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Wen Ho Lee was charged with 59 counts of violating nuclear security [15] and held in solitary pretrial federal confinement for nine months.[16] The one-time heated prosecution of Lee virtually collapsed . . . when an FBI agent recanted testimony in which he said Lee lied about his purpose for downloading the nuclear information. [17]

Prince Jones, a Howard University student, died from a fatal gunshot wound inflicted by a Prince George's County (Maryland) police officer who followed him in an unmarked sport utility vehicle because a vehicle matching the description of the car driven by Prince Jones was linked to a weapon stolen from a Prince George's County police vehicle. Prince Jones was shot five times in the torso and once in the forearm, all from behind. [18]

As a result of the incidents described above, the terms racial profiling and community policing have entered the everyday vocabulary of many Americans.[19] Both of these issues have become subjects of legislation, litigation, and police policy since the publication of Guardians and will be discussed throughout this report.

Law enforcement agencies have made great in-roads in reducing crime and the use of deadly force, but such progress comes at a cost. An agonizing reality exists alongside statistics showing a decrease in the use of deadly force by police officers and a reduction of crime in many communities: the persistence of police misconduct. For example, the fact that 11 people were shot down by police officers in New York City in 1999 compared with 41 in 1990 does not remove the specter of impending doom that visits ordinary law-abiding people of color during street encounters with police officers in the city. The errant behavior of a few abusive police officers, even in the absence of police shootings, can often destroy cooperative and strategic alliances between police departments and the communities they serve. When some citizens perceive and experience the police being unfair, inequitable, harsh, and/or arbitrary, and moreover, when these citizens come from groups that have historically experienced unfair and inappropriate police behavior, such perceptions and experiences deride the very concept of fair and equitable treatment under the law and erode the bonds of civil society.[20]

This is not to say that the laudatory reduction in fatal shootings by police officers is unimportant. The recorded decreases in police shootings exhibit a meaningful illustration of the progress that law enforcement departments can achieve when reform efforts are targeted and emphasized in training and professional discipline for the use of deadly force. It is significant, however, that cultural training practices and uniformly employed discipline are lacking in other important areas of police work. Additional police reforms are required to reduce civil rights violations where they continue to occur in the course of complex police investigations and in response to questionable crime reduction strategies. 

For example, a compelling case can be made for providing better training and harsher discipline to law enforcement officials to prevent officers from transgressing constitutional requirements for initiating a legal stop based on individualized suspicion. Currently, an urgent need exists to halt the frequent police practice of disproportionately stopping individuals of color based on statistical probabilities and demographics. Racial profiling compromises civil rights and constitutional principles. Such incidents often leave blameless, upstanding persons with emotional scars, if not physical injuries. These scars and injuries cause these individuals to remain apprehensive about the prospect of future adverse encounters with police officers. Left with no assurances that effective disciplinary actions will be taken or reforms implemented, the injured individuals maintain lingering doubts about the objectivity of persons who wear badges, carry guns, and make critical judgments about who is and who is not a criminal suspect.

As the Cato Institute determined in a report about New York City's Street Crime Unit that was released in 2000, experience has shown that stop-and-frisk tactics unnecessarily endanger the police, the suspect, and bystanders. Policymakers in New York and elsewhere should discontinue the freewheeling stop-and-frisk searches and restore the constitutional standard of probable cause without delay. [21]

The Commission recognizes and reiterates that the adverse actions of some officers are not representative of all law enforcement professionals. Law-abiding officers should not have to pay for the crimes committed by a few whose actions are memorialized in news headlines. The problem of police misconduct, however, is too pervasive and complex to be reduced to simply blaming a few rogue law enforcement officers. It is important to note that the problem of police misconduct is not limited to white officers but may include officers of color. Indeed, police practices and policies as a whole, which include training, use of deadly force, oversight, and the police culture, contribute to the problem. Correcting these issues and addressing community concerns are the only legitimate means of ensuring the protection of the civil rights of all Americans. 


Since the publication of Guardians, the Commission has remained in the forefront of examining police misconduct and its effect on civil rights. It has published more than 20 reports since Guardians discussing these issues and made numerous recommendations on how to best address police misconduct.[22]

A review of these reports reveals that the problems discussed in Guardians decades ago persist despite many calls for change. The Commission repeated many of the recommendations it made in Guardians on improving police practices and protecting civil rights in its subsequent reports. The problems, however, continue with no end in sight to the constant barrage of police misconduct reports. This led the Commission to conduct a briefing and ask several experts on police practices to provide an update on what has happened since Guardians and where the future lies with regard to how our guardians perform their jobs and serve our country while still protecting constitutionally guaranteed civil rights. 


On June 16, 2000, the Commission gathered a group of experts on police issues to examine police misconduct and recommend changes that would be appropriate for present-day problems. Dr. Sandra Bass, Dr. James Fyfe, Dr. Robert Louden, Dr. Charles Ogletree, and Mr. Hubert Williams were the five panelists invited to discuss current police practices in the United States and their effect on civil rights. Their expert presentations and previous Commission reports served as bases for the present publication. 

Sandra Bass has been an assistant professor at the University of Maryland in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice since 1998. Prior to her association with the University of Maryland, Dr. Bass was a policy analyst and doctoral fellow at the Rand Corporation, where she conducted research from 1997 to 1998 on early childhood violence prevention. She taught courses at the University of Maryland in advanced policing. Dr. Bass has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at Berkeley. She has written numerous articles on police and minority communities.[23]

James Fyfe is a professor of criminal justice and senior public policy research fellow at the Temple University Center for Public Policy. Dr. Fyfe is also the project director of the Crime and Justice Research Institute in Philadelphia. He is a retired New York City police officer. Dr. Fyfe is the co-author of Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force. He has a B.S. from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York (CUNY) and an M.A. and Ph.D. in criminal justice from the State University of New York.[24]

Robert Louden is director of the Criminal Justice Center and Security Management Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. He is also an adjunct member of the sociology department and the department of law, police science and criminal justice administration at CUNY. Dr. Louden is a 21-year veteran of the New York City Police Department. He received a B.A. from Baruch College and an M.A. from John Jay College. He received an M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy from CUNY.[25]

Charles Ogletree is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard University School of Law. His research interests include public defender systems, standards of competence for counsel, and criminal justice administration. Dr. Ogletree is co-author of Beyond the Rodney King Story An Examination of Police Conduct in Minority Communities. He received a B.A. and M.A. in political science from Stanford University and a law degree from Harvard University School of Law.[26]

Hubert Williams is president of the Police Foundation, an independent nonprofit research and technical assistance organization dedicated to the improvement of police practices. As president, Mr. Williams is a leading advocate for professional standards and uniform practices in policing. A 30-year veteran of policing, he became one of the youngest chief executive officers of a major police department on the Newark police force from 1974 to 1985. Mr. Williams has a B.S. from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a J.D. from Rutgers University School of Law. He was a research fellow at Harvard University School of Law, Center for Criminal Justice, and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy.[27]

[1] U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Who Is Guarding the Guardians? October 1981.

[2] Official Negligence: Lou Cannon dissects the Rodney King case and the LA riots, Apr. 7, 1998, <http://www.pbs. org/newshour/authors_corner/jan-june98/cannon_4-7.html> (July 26, 2000). One of the four officers involved in the beating of Mr. King was found guilty of excessive force in a state court. The other three officers were acquitted of all state charges. High Court considers Rodney King defendants sentencing, USA Today, May 28, 1996, <http:// www.usatoday.com/news/court/nscot089.htm> (July 26, 2000).

[3] At the 70th Precinct house, officers pulled down [Louima s] pants and led him to the bathroom, where they sodomized him with the [toilet] plunger and then jammed the handle in his mouth. New York City Police Accused of Sexual Assault
 (quoting Louima, The Associated Press, Aug. 13, 1997, <http://members.aol.com/Jaiconsul/coprape1. html> (July 26, 2000)).

[4] Thomas Zolper, State Says 2 Troopers Lied About Shooting; Court Papers Dispute Claims in Turnpike Case, The Record (Bergen County, NJ), June 1, 2000, p. A1.

[5] The van's tires were spinning and squealing as it bolted backward toward the troopers patrol car, said one of the troopers. This event triggered the other trooper to break the van's passenger window and shoot the passenger four times. The van was searched for contraband following the shooting. Only clothing, a book, and a Bible were recovered. Ibid. See also Robert Hanley, Troopers Version of Shooting Is Disputed, The New York Times, June 2, 2000, p. B4.

[6] Dan Kraut, 4 Cops Avoid Charges in Death; No Bias Found in I-80 Shooting, The Record (Bergen County, NJ), July 14, 2000, p. A1. The four troopers claimed they fired 27 shots into the vehicle because they feared for their lives after [the driver], who was unarmed, began ramming the police cars that trapped his vehicle. The driver was fatally wounded and his passenger was shot in the leg. The U.S. attorney's investigation consisted of a review of the grand jury transcripts, interview with one witness, and review of photographs and a video. Based on the investigation, the U.S. attorney found insufficient evidence to charge the officers with federal criminal civil rights violations. Ibid.

[7] A New York City detective testified at the criminal trial that four more bullets fell from Diallo's body as it was removed. Detective: Bullets fell from Diallo's body as it was lifted from scene: Testimony begins in murder trial of N.Y. officers, CNN, Feb. 2, 2000, <http://www.cnn.com/ 2000/ 0202/diallo.trial.02/> (July 28, 2000). Julia Campbell, Jury Acquits Officers of All Charges in Diallo Trial, Fox News, Feb. 25, 2000, <http://foxnews.com/national/022500/diallo.sml> (July 28, 2000).

[8] Criminal charges filed against officers in Los Angeles scandal, CNN, Apr. 24, 2000, <http://www.cnn.com/2000/ US/04/24/lapd.probe.02/> (July 26, 2000). More than two dozen officers have been fired, relieved of duty, or have quit as a result of the corruption scandal, and at least 70 are under investigation, CNN has learned. Ibid.

[9] Four other officers from the Rampart Division were arraigned for crimes including planting drugs or weapons on suspects, falsifying police reports and lying under oath at criminal trials during the first week of August 2000. As this report was finalized, the Los Angeles Police Department charged six other officers with misconduct for allegedly shooting and then framing unarmed suspects. Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks ended his resistance to a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to end the LAPD's pattern or practice of violating the civil rights of persons through the use of excessive force and infringing the rights of minorities. Rene Sanchez, Beleaguered LAPD Charges Six More With Misconduct, The Washington Post, July 27, 2000, p. A2. Since the scandal broke, investigators have focused mainly on suspects who may have been wrongly convicted or imprisoned because of officer misconduct. Cases have been dropped against nearly 100 suspects, and about 10 people have been released from prison. Ibid. None among the new group of officers to be disciplined by the department has been criminally charged. But LAPD officials say the administrative charges stem from the officers role in shooting unarmed gang members, planting a gun on one of them and then delaying calling an ambulance for a victim bleeding to death while they altered the crime scene. Ibid.  See also Peter Y. Hong, Tina Daunt, Parks Drops His Opposition, Commits LAPD to Decree, The Los Angeles Times, Sept. 21, 2000, <http://www.latimes.com/news/state/20000921/t000089369.html> (Sept. 22, 2000).

[10] CTV News, CTV, June 17, 2000, <http://www.lexis.com/research/News Group File> (July 28, 2000). A group of men swarmed the women in the park and along Central Park South first drenching them with water, then ripping off all their clothes and groping them during a 35-minute spree. Ibid. Martin Mbugua, Michelle McPhee, and Bill Hutchinson, Central Park Terror: Gang of 15 Strips, Sexually Abuses 4 Women, The Daily News (New York), June 12, 2000, p. 4. See also Rick Hampson, Men run through Central Park stripping and groping women, USA Today, June 13, 2000, p. 4A.

[11] Michelle McPhee, Emily Gest, and Bill Hutchinson, Dorismond Cop is Cleared: Victim's kin rip grand jury ruling, The Daily News (New York), <http://www.nydaily news.com/2000-07-28/Mews_and_Views/City_Beat/a-74767.asp> (July 28, 2000).

[12] Ibid. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said, For the sake of the Dorismond family, I want to make this perfectly clear: Mr. Dorismond was gainfully employed as a security guard, was unarmed and was not selling drugs. The evidence shows that he lost his temper and hit someone who tried to buy drugs from him. The mayor's office released Mr. Dorismond s juvenile and adult criminal records after the fatal shooting. Subsequently, the mayor reluctantly agreed to cooperate with federal oversight of the New York City Police Department's handling of abuse and brutality allegations. Ibid. See also William K. Rashbaum, A Reversal on Oversight of the Police, The New York Times, July 7, 2000, p. B1.

[13] As in the Rodney King incident, Jones beating was captured on videotape. Mr. Jones sister told a Philadelphia newspaper that the police action was unwarranted: They had already shot him five times. They didn't have to beat him. Mike Regan and Mat Gross, Man Beaten on Video Had Many Prior Arrests (quoting The Philadelphia Inquirer), Fox News, July 13, 2000, <http://www.foxnews.com/ national/071300/shootout_capture.sml> (July 20, 2000).

[14] Police Deny Brutality Claim in Georgia Arrest, United Press International, July 14, 2000, <http://www.lexis.com/research/News Group File> (July 24, 2000).

[15] Wen Ho Lee Pleads Guilty, Goes Free, Fox News, Sept. 13, 2000, <http://www.foxnews.com/national/091300/wenjolee. sml> (Sept. 22, 2000).

[16] Kevin Johnson and Toni Locy, Wen Ho Lee released from custody, USA Today, Sept. 13, 2000, <http://www.usatoday. com/news/washdc/ncswed05.htm> (Sept. 22, 2000) (hereafter cited as Johnson and Locy, Lee released ). Lee ultimately pled guilty to a single count on Sept. 13, 2000, admitting that he had used an unsecure computer to download a document relating to national defense onto a tape. At Lee's plea and sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge James Parker said, I apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner in which you were held in custody by the executive branch. Judge Parker also stated, The Departments of Justice and Energy have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it. President William J. Clinton also expressed concern about the handling of Lee's case. President Clinton found it difficult in retrospect to reconcile how the government could keep someone in jail without bail, argue right up to the 11th hour that they're a terrible risk, and then turn around and make that sort of plea agreement. It can't be justified. Clinton will talk to Reno about Wen Ho Lee, USA Today, Sept. 17, 2000, <http://www.usatoday.com.news/washdc/ncsfri03.htm> (Sept. 22, 2000). 

[17] Johnson and Locy, Lee released.

[18] Fairfax prosecutor says facts in shooting support Md. Officer s self-defense claim, The Associated Press State & Local Wire, Sept. 8, 2000, <http://www.lexis.com/research/ News Group File> (Sept. 22, 2000). Prince George's County Police Department Corporal Carlton Jones followed the 25-year-old student who worked as a physical trainer, was followed from suburban Maryland through the District of Columbia, across the Potomac River and into Virginia. Corporal Jones told authorities that he fired at Prince Jones because he was in fear for his life after Prince Jones used his Jeep to back into the driver's side of the officer's unmarked vehicle. The Prince George s County police weapons policy says that [f]irearms may only be discharged . . . from or at a moving vehicle when the occupants of the other vehicle are using or threatening deadly force by a means other than the vehicle. Corporal Jones is also a defendant in an unrelated police brutality suit. At the time of this report, no charges had been filed against the officer.

This incident is one of 12 in the past 14 months where Prince George's County officers shot civilians. Five of those shot died and two others died in police custody. Prince George's County Police Chief John Farrell promised to institute a series of initiatives designed to restore confidence in the troubled force, including the immediate installation of video cameras in patrol cars and the appointment of an FBI agent to oversee disciplinary affairs. Ibid. Tom Jackman and Jamie Stockwell, Man Shot in Back, Autopsy Shows, The Washington Post, Sept. 7, 2000, p. A1. Tom Jackman, Man Killed in Va. By Md. Officer, The Washington Post, Sept. 2, 2000, p. A1. Jamie Stockwell and Ian Shapiro, Va. Officials Seek Details in Slaying, The Washington Post, Sept. 4, 2000, p. A1. Frederick Kunkle and Jamie Stockwell, Cracking Down in Prince George s, The Washington Post, Sept. 22, 2000, <http://www.lexis.com/research/News Group File> (Sept. 22, 2000). Special Agent Roy Washington was appointed executive director of the Office of Professional Responsibility for the Prince George's County Police Department. Ibid. Washington and a team of at least four detective sergeants will have authority to roam the force at will, conducting integrity checks that include reviewing reports and evidence submitted by officers, conducting post-arrest interviews with suspects and carrying our surprise inspections. Ibid.

[20] Sandra Bass, assistant professor, University of Maryland, statement before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, National Police Practices and Civil Rights Briefing, June 16, 2000, transcript, p. 15 (hereafter cited as Police Practices Briefing Transcript).

[21] Timothy Lynch, We Own the Night: Amadou Diallo's Deadly Encounter with New York City's Street Crimes [sic] Unit, Cato Institute, Mar. 31, 2000, p. 8.

[22] See appendix A.

[23] Chairperson Mary Frances Berry, Police Practices Briefing Transcript, pp. 5 6.

[24] Ibid., p. 6.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., p. 7.

[27] Ibid., pp. 6 7.