Distrust and Abuse Requires Police to Operate in New Ways
By: Steven Bateman
“To protect and to serve.” In 1955, this was the motto chosen for the Los Angeles Police Academy and was later adopted by the LAPD itself and many police departments around the country. Yet many folks today, particularly those with libertarian inclinations, distrust the police and view them as enemies.
From where does this distrust originate? In my life, I’ve personally only had a few interactions with law enforcement, and those instances have mostly been positive. It can be easy for someone with my experience to view claims of police abuse as isolated incidents. However, as YouTube, Google, and other media searches will quickly reveal, there is a very serious problem with police today. Illegal searches, excessive force, and even deaths are becoming increasingly common.
A man is shot in his own home when he answers the door at 1am with a gun after the police knock but refuse to identify themselves. (1) Another woman is kicked in the head while sitting in handcuffs. (2) A sheriff’s deputy pulls up to a private residence to ask for directions and shoots the family dog as it comes to greet him. (3) Why is this happening and what can be done to stop it?
Ultimately, I believe the primary factors are a lack of accountability, and the increasing power we’ve given our governments to fight the War on Drugs and in the interest of national security. Some believe that law enforcement attracts thugs, and while authority does have its appeal for a person with brutish disposition, I believe that most officers genuinely seek to do good.
It’s that the culture into which they are absorbed is like a fraternity with a deeply ingrained sense of “us vs. them,” with “them” being the general public. One need only peruse the comments section of news articles posted to PoliceOne.com, a website for cops, to see the mentality.
In the comment section of one article, you can find members applauding and joking about police gunning down the mentally ill son of a police critic and activist. (4) Their Facebook page isn’t any better.
When complaints arise from citizens, many departments handle those investigations in their internal affairs departments rather than through independent review. In other words, the police are being left to police their “brothers” and “sisters.” Is it any wonder officer misconduct is rarely punished?
I think a civilian review would help restore some accountability. I think a small number of people, selected from the same pool as jurors, could be chosen to handle individual complaints against the police. The police department would still do its own investigation, but the civilian review would do its own, not just independent of the department, but independent of department policy as well. In instances where the department decides an officer acted according to the guidelines, then those guidelines themselves are brought up for review.
There will of course be the issue of an officer’s word going against a citizen’s. To combat that, a few police departments have placed small cameras on their officers. I think this is a great idea, however, there have been complaints that departments only release this footage when it supports their claims.
I submit that the footage from these cameras as well as footage from the dash-cams of cruisers be entered into the public record the day after they’re recorded. To encourage police departments not to lose this evidence, in the event the camera footage is lost, by default the decision will go against the police department.
In addition, with the proliferation cell phone cameras, it’s been increasingly common for people witnessing police misconduct to record it. Some officers have been confiscating the footage or outright destroying the phones.
The legality of recording police is currently in question and varies between localities. I think it needs to be established that legally, citizens have the right to film any on-duty government official. Furthermore, it needs to be clear that officers may request copies of any footage taken by civilians; they may not actually seize or confiscate the footage. This footage may also be brought forward during civilian review.
While increasing accountability would go a long way, the law itself needs to change. Our fear or another terrorist attack has led us to give considerable more power to law enforcement, and much of that power is instead being used to fight the Drug War. For example, the Patriot Act has been used in 1,618 drug cases and only 15 terrorism cases. (5)
Even without the Patriot Act, officers are and have been stopping people without cause to search for drugs. Despite the fact that whites have higher rates of drug abuse (6), blacks and Latinos are stopped and searched much more frequently. Is it any wonder many minorities don’t trust police?
While there’s no excuse for unfairly singling out minorities, some of the blame belongs to city and senior department officials who set quotas for arrests and tickets. The pressure on meeting quotas is so bad in NYC, that one detective went so far as to plant evidence and make false arrests. (7)
Cities want these arrests made because they get more federal funding for fighting the war on drugs, and arrests are a way to demonstrate that they’re doing that. In other words, it’s about money. Even without the Drug War, many cities require their office to meet quotas for speeding and other traffic violations. Why? Again, money.
Often tickets are another source of revenue, a way for governments to tax their citizens without calling it a tax. To the citizen, this makes the cop the bad guy, the agent of a thieving government. The problem with quotas is that it gives officers very little leeway to let minor infractions go. If they let someone slide, they risk not meeting their quota.
In reality, the quality of a police officer cannot be judged by simple arrest numbers or the number of tickets an officer writes. Having an officer who knows the community and is visible and present acts as a deterrent to crime and the value of such an officer isn’t necessarily quantifiable.
While quotas are a more frequent unpleasant side effect of the drug war, a more egregious violation of our rights is the paramilitary/SWAT raids.
The problem with these raids is that they’re dangerous for both officers and homeowners. Think about it: an officer entering a home has very little time to ascertain whether or not someone is a threat. A homeowner, who may not have heard the police announce themselves, may think someone is breaking into the house and seek to defend himself, only to be gunned down by the officers or succeed in killing an officer before he realizes what’s going on and ends up in jail.
Often, the family dog is a victim (8) of police shooting, and sometimes other people get caught in the crossfire. Even more galling is when this happens and the police don’t even have the right house! Bad raids aren’t isolated incidents either.
Radley Balko has compiled a list of police raids where officers have the wrong home, where a homeowner was shot, or where an officer was shot. (9) This list has not been updated since 2011 and even at that time it was by no means comprehensive, but it illustrates the point that these raids go bad far more frequently than they should.
All in all, it’s a bad situation. While these raids are primarily a result of the Drug War, they’re also used to bust people selling knockoff clothing, movie bootleggers, and raw milk producers. It’s my opinion that police raids should be reserved for life-threatening emergencies, but otherwise prohibited. There might be a time when a raid is necessary but do we really need to send in a SWAT team to catch stoners or because little Billy is file sharing? I think not.
You may wonder why any police department would risk its officers if these raids are that dangerous. In part, the incentive is money. (Noticing a trend?)
Police departments have an economic incentive in the form of asset forfeiture. Either put to use by the department or auctioned off, in some cases, individual officers get to keep some of the property for themselves. Billions of dollars worth of property are seized annually. Even if someone is found not guilty, the burden of proof is on the property owner to prove that their property was not used in the commission of a crime, rather than the burden being on the state to prove that it was. (10)
Putting an end to civil asset forfeiture, ending the drug war, and eliminating quotas would go a long way to restoring the integrity of police. Without asset forfeiture, departments would no longer have an economic incentive to launch raids. Without the drug war, they’d have no justification for stopping people or raiding houses. And without quotas, the police could stop being the bad guys and focus more on community-based policing.
In keeping with the emphasis on community-based policing, I think officers should get much more training in conflict resolution. I also think it would be best if non-lethal weapons such as tasers and pepper spray were to be removed from general use. The problem with non-lethal weapons is that “non-lethal” is falsely corroborated with “safe”. These weapons can still do great harm, and I believe they actually lower the threshold for when a police officer will resort to force.
If non-lethal force is required, officers should be well-versed in a martial art such as Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or Aikido. These martial arts offer the ability to control without necessarily doing harm, although they can do harm if need be. For safety, officers would always work in pairs, and they would still have their guns if they need them.
Finally, I think it would be beneficial to make sure POs are reasonably well paid. After everything I’ve written, I’m sure that’s going to seem counter-intuitive, but my point is not to villainize the police. There are many good officers who join groups like the Oath Keepers (http://oathkeepers.org) and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (http://www.leap.cc) or simply seek to make their communities better.
There is a legitimate need and function for police officers. If you’ve ever worked a service job, you know sometimes people can be really rotten. And the work law enforcement does is going to increase the likelihood of dealing with unpleasant and sometimes dangerous people. It’s a difficult, thankless job with long hours. With all the stresses an officer may face, being disgruntled about poor pay shouldn’t be one of them.
No, my point is not to villainize police, but to show that there is a lack of accountability with law enforcement today. Power without accountability pretty much always leads to abuse and corruption.
The Phony “War on Cops” (http://c4ss.org/content/10989)
The Militarization of American Police (http://www.thefreemanonline.org/features/the-militarization-of-american-police/)
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