It seems like in every discussion we have on police misconduct and officer-involved shootings, someone tries to turn the issue back to crime. They are not the same issues.
New stats came out on Monday which show about an 11 percent increase in murders from 2014. A huge amount of those increased murders are being driven by exactly one city – Chicago – according to analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice.
Even law enforcement leaders are urging for calm and perspective. For instance, Ronal Serpas, who heads up Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, a group that includes the current police chief of Los Angeles, as well as former chiefs of police for New York and Washington, D.C., said the following:
“Irresponsible claims that crime is out of control are not backed up by the facts, as new data analyses show. Overall crime remains the same as it was last year, though a small number of cities have seen a rise in murder rates. Increases in such cities are troubling and must be addressed immediately,” he said. “Police officers continue to work hard every day to keep our country safe, and sensational headlines don’t help us in that mission. False narratives on rising crime create panic and division, instead of giving police and communities an opportunity to work with each other toward an even safer place to live.”
We also need perspective. Crime rates have fallen steadily for the last 25 years, bottoming out for now in 2014. Clearly, the crimes rates were not going to continue dropping forever – that does not mean that things are headed back to where they were from 1977 to 1994.
At the same time, there has been a question from more conservative circles, about why there isn’t more of a pushback against black on black crime. Part of the answer is that black on black crime isn’t operating under the color of authority, and therefore represents a wholly different issue.
As we have noted this year, part of the problem is that, for the history of this country, the police themselves were used as the instrument by which white supremacy was enforced.
The recent pushback against police shootings actually can be traced back to a string of incidents following the election of President Obama, where African Americans became disillusioned with the notion that we can elect a black president – but African Americans still cannot enjoy equal protection under the law.
But I think the conservative critics have missed a more fundamental problem with their black on black violence theory. Ferguson happened at a time when violence of all kinds was at a 50-year low, and so the focus of the black community had turned toward the systemic and disproportionate policing that they had endured in silence for years.
I would add one more caveat. In 1991, it was an accident of history that an individual with a new video camera happened to catch the beating of Rodney King on video. Nowadays, we have cell phone cameras, surveillance cameras, and now police dash cams and body-worn cameras.
The ability to live stream cell phone video on Facebook, upload to YouTube and other social media and reach a half million to a million people almost instantly has changed the playing field. Whereas police actions have always operated in the dark, so to speak, now every interaction has the potential to be caught on film and shown to millions before it even reaches national TV.
For me the biggest difference between traditional crime and police misconduct is that we have a system for dealing with the former, but struggle to deal with the latter. Look, I’m a critic of the criminal justice system in a lot of ways, but if you commit a crime, the police will investigate and arrest, you will be prosecuted by a professional DA, represented by an attorney, tried and convicted and sentenced to a set amount of time.
While we may quibble around the edges of the system, it is a system that we have utilized for a long time.
Dealing with problem officers remains a problem. Not only do police operate under the color of authority, the system is poorly equipped to deal with officers who break the public trust. Even in this heightened age of awareness we see problems with the system – who should investigate, when is it misconduct versus a crime, how transparent should the police be?
I thought a column a few days from Assemblymember Kevin McCarty was informative. He was discussing the video released of the Sacramento police shooting of Joseph Mann. The video, which the Vanguard reported on, shows that Mr. Mann was behaving erratically.
As the Assemblymember writes, “Mann was behaving erratically, had a knife and threatened officers verbally. Officers had been told he had a gun, though no gun was found. It’s unclear from the video whether he was holding a weapon in his final confrontation with police.”
He notes, “Police and District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert’s office are investigating to determine if the shooting was justified.” But that is the problem. Asking law enforcement (and the DA’s office is an extension of law enforcement) to investigate itself is not going to generate trust in the outcome.
The Assemblymember gets it. He writes, “It’s in the best interests of the public and officers to bring more independence and transparency to investigations of shootings by officers.” He continues, “A conflict of interest exists when police and district attorneys police themselves. District attorneys rely on testimony and evidence provided by police. They work together and many develop close relationships.”
In a 2015 report, The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, it was concluded that “independent investigators and prosecutors are needed in cases of police-involved fatal shootings.”
However, the Assemblymember points out, “So far, only three states require that outside agencies investigate officer-involved shootings. In Wisconsin, the first state to adopt such a requirement, police have embraced the reform, and it gives family and friends of the deceased more confidence in the process.”
Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said the reform “strikes the balance between the fact that law enforcement officers have one of the hardest jobs in the world and the reality that their ability to do those jobs relies upon the public trust.”
Mr. McCarty notes that he authored legislation in 2015, AB 86, “that would have required special prosecutors appointed by California’s attorney general to investigate officer-involved shootings. The bill, which stalled, would have granted independent prosecutors the authority and resources to determine whether criminal charges should be filed against officers who are justified in their use of lethal force.
“Based on what we see across the country and in Sacramento, California must insist on independent outside investigations of officer-involved shootings.”
While I agree with Kevin McCarty, I would actually go a step further. I think we need a uniform police investigation system across the country – one that sets a process by which cases can be independently investigated, sets transparency requirements to the public, and sets a uniform discipline system that spans from professional discipline to civil discipline and criminal discipline.
I really believe that the distrust, not only in the police but in the accountability for police crossing the line, is driving a lot of these problems and that, by addressing that in a holistic manner, we can restore trust in the system.
—David M. Greenwald reporting