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Police Interrogation and its Predicaments

By Ishita Sethi


Coercive and deceptive interrogation by the police impedes justice. It often harms the process and outcome of the case, which in itself is detrimental when we consider the innocent people who might get framed, the victim who never got the justice they deserved, and the actual culprit who was let free without any consequences. 

In the process of legal procedures like interrogations being carried out, there is a tendency for police officers to abuse their power. Though one can argue that these methods are not inherently unethical, there is no denying that these authority figures are more concerned with misusing power than with uncovering truth and justice. This paper, drawing on the series, “When they see us” and the play “The accidental death of the anarchist”, seeks to discuss the pattern of police brutality evident in both instances, while also focusing on how race and class impacted the treatment of the police in respective cases.

The series, When they see us, is based on the case of “Central Park Five”, wherein five black and Hispanic boys were falsely convicted of the rape of a woman. The interrogation scenes in the first episode of the series depicted how dismissive the police officers were towards the five boys. Not only were they reluctant in trying to find significant evidence against the boys or the case entirely, but they also employed fraudulent measures during their interrogation process.

While it can be argued that certain deceptive measures may help in extracting useful information from the suspect, constant pressure from authority figures often blurs the line between pressure and influence. The police officers in the series claimed they already knew that the boys raped and hit the victim, alleging that whatever happens they already had proof of them being the rapists. They repeatedly turned a deaf ear to the boys who kept pleading that they had never even seen the lady, let alone rape or hit her. It is worth noting here that the five boys were all minors and the interrogation was done without the presence of their guardians, making it even more illegal. Furthermore, they viciously hit one of the guys, while simultaneously telling him that they would never hurt him, rather, they are there to help. The officers deprived the boys of food, drink, and sleep for over twenty-four hours at the time of the interrogation process. In an attempt to guilt-trap the guys into “confessing”, the police officers posed to care for the poor woman, who was in a coma for twelve days before she died. In actuality, however, the officers were more concerned with trying to prove that the five kids were the ones who raped the woman. Eventually, after coaching the guys on what to say, the latter was successfully coerced into confessing to the rape. This coercion and inhumane behaviour towards the boys led to the actual rapist of the woman going around freely for over a decade, whilst the five innocent boys’ life was ruined.  

A parallel can be drawn in regards to the police brutality shown in the series with Dario Fo’s play, Accidental death of the anarchist. The authorities involved in the interrogation process verbally pressurized the anarchist, claiming that they had “incontrovertible proof” of him having planted the bomb at the station. While explaining the process to the Madman, they alleged this fabricated claim to be “a simple deception police officers use as bait”. As the Madman in the play put it, not only did the officers arrest a free citizen based on the mere fact that he was a railway worker, but they also abused their power and held him beyond the time that is considered legal. They coerced him into thinking they had proof against his innocence, which was false, and made him believe that he, a working-class man for whom a job is necessary to make ends meet, lost his job for being accused of a crime he didn’t actually commit. When they couldn’t get a confession out of him, they killed him, taking police brutality to another horrifying level.

The general public expects candour and honesty from these authority figures whose entire work is to enforce justice. The concept of trust and faith is destroyed when authority figures themselves are corrupted. The miscarriage of justice that comes with the incorporation of illusory and coercive tactics makes the entire existence of the justice system irrelevant. In both cases, the police officers failed to serve justice to not only the victims of the respective cases but also damaged the lives of five innocent boys and the railway worker. There are many such examples wherein police brutality during the interrogation process adversely affected innocent people who indirectly became victims of the crime they were convicted of. The misconduct of such authorities has led to the death of such people, both literally and figuratively.

It is fairly noteworthy that the police brutality that followed the interrogative procedures in both instances was influenced by something or the other, which makes the already horrific treatment by the police authorities even more gruesome. In both cases, the police needed a scapegoat to put the blame on, almost like some sort of sacrifice for the police that would calm the public who are merely asking the police and legal authorities to do their job.

Throughout the series When they see us, it gives off the impression as if some white cops are trying to put black kids behind the bars, simply because it was easy to do so. Racism in the justice system in the USA has been institutionalised and normalized to such an extent that today it is normal, something which is expected- of everyone in society. In fact, study shows that 1 in 3 black boys expect to be put behind bars at least once in his lifetime, as could 1 in every 6 Latino men—emphasis supplied on the expectation—compared to 1 in every seventeen white boys. These preconceived notions and hegemony which surround, to this day, the perceptions and stereotypes about black people accelerated the process of incrimination of five innocent teens. When they employ deceptive tactics and don’t even bother extracting significant evidence against the suspects, the police are presuming that the suspect is guilty beforehand, and the teens being Black and Hispanic in the present context made it easier for the police to frame them. Consequently, the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” was deemed irrelevant once race came into the picture. Central Park Five is among the many cases in which victims suffered injustice and lost their lives in order to expose a pattern of police misconduct that had been prevalent for many years. Many young African Americans are apprehensive about having children for fear their kids might face police misconduct one day. The African American youth in the States should not have to live in constant fear of those responsible for their protection.  

A similar situation can be seen in the play. The scenario of the play is set in Italy in 1969, the year which is infamously termed as “Hot Summer” of the working class. The working class was miserable; their working conditions were unsafe, hours were long, the pay was low, and the benefits packages were poor. This led to the working class striking, and unrest in the country reaching an unimaginable height. In line with this, over 173 bomb attacks took place in Italy in over a year. The anarchist was arrested in the aftermath of the Hot Autumn Piazza Fontana bombing of November 12, 1969. Within seventy-two hours of his arrest, he was dead. As mentioned before in the paper, he was arrested solely based on the assumption that he was a railway worker. The police officers were in a rush to close this case, just like in the case of the Central Park Five. They had pressure from the government. Since there was already upheaval in the country because of the strikes, the anarchist’s death, which made the police look suspicious, caused an even huge public outcry. The government was desperate for a scapegoat; there had to be someone to take the bait to save the government’s reputation, at least what was left of it. Since framing the anarchist was easy, the police arrested him on the mere grounds of him being a railway worker, which is being reiterated to emphasize the gruesomeness of the situation, and when they couldn’t find any significant evidence, they killed him and fabricated a story in order to make it look like he killed himself. This blind obedience to rank and under-rooted class discrimination cost a man his life. An innocent man shouldn’t have to suffer just because the authorities were helpless when it came to maintaining order and were more concerned with abusing their power and authority.

The deception and corrupt methods that are incorporated during the interrogation may seem insignificant at the first glance, but they have an adverse effect on the outcome of the case. The effects are not confined simply to the ones directly involved with the case; rather, it hampers the trust that the public puts in the police force. There are many arguments based on the pace of the cases, iterating how slow the judicial system is in its process, which is something that should be worked upon. However, the police force should keep in mind that employing fraudulent and unethical practices in their work simply worsens the situation, and simply getting confessions out of suspects and not caring whether or not they are true is not helpful. If the world treated police brutality how they treated five innocent boys who were, without any significant evidence, convicted for the rape of a woman or how they treated a poor man who was merely killed because it was easy to frame him, the world would be a better place.

About the Author

Ishita Sethi is a Second-year law student pursuing BCOM LLB (Hons) from Jindal Global Law School 

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