IN THEIR DREADFUL WAY, this year's racial disturbances in Miami and other racially tense areas around the country did prompt various investigators and citizens' groups to take new looks at social and economic conditions that may have contributed to their troubles. That's all well and good, of course, although usually it's only a matter of weeks before these flurries of earnest concern and proposals for change begin to fade. But in almost every case, regardless of differences in local conditions leading up to the disturbances, there is a common trigger element: the use of "deadly force" by police -- either inadvertently or deliberately, justified or not.
It is a sore subject with minority groups (blacks and Hispanics account for more than half the victims of police shootings) as well as with police, whose policies vary markedly. Still, Patrick V. Murphy, president of the Police Foundation and former head of a number of police departments, including the District's, believes that many localities are becoming "too complacent" about police use of weapons or other force, and are not holding their departments accountable.
Mr. Murphy recommends that every police department adopt the FBI's policy on shooting, which tells agents to shoot people only in self-defense or if they believe they or others are in danger of death "or grievous bodily harm." But how many departments have clear-cut policies, and how well are these policies made known to the public?
To find out, and to see how it affects minority groups, the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration has made money available to the NAACP for a 15-month monitoring project in 16 states. With the help of the Police Foundation, the NAACP will ask police authorities to explain their policies on deadly force and will work with citizens groups to develop local monitoring procedures.
Though many state and local agencies with policies similar to the FBI's are cooperating, a few authorities have balked. Before leaving office as president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Joseph S. Dominelli, police chief in Rotterdam, N.Y., charged that the project "smacks of a political strategy" and asked the Justice Department to kill it; he also urged colleagues to resist "biased investigation and study."
It is precisely this kind of narrow, defensive attitude that destroys efforts of enlightened police chiefs around the country to improve their reputations among constituents in general and minority groups in particular. Fortunately, most of the IACP members know better. The LEAA effort not only is important in the eyes of minority organizations, but could well produce significant improvements in police-community relations around the country.