By Jaden Jarmel-Schneider
NATIONAL – St. Louis Police Chief Attorney Kimberly Gardner and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner are making a national call for prosecutors to more effectively hold police officers accountable.
Noting that a long-standing history of camaraderie between prosecutors and police officers has paved the way for institutional and customary relationships between district attorney’s offices and police departments in America, they called for a redefining of that relationship in an op-ed published last week on Slate.
Written just a couple of weeks after the death of George Floyd, Gardner and Krasner—leaders in major prosecutor offices—contextualize the national outrage that followed his murder within a larger cycle of police violence against marginalized communities.
Pointing to the unspoken code of secrecy in police departments and the refusal of many prosecutors to seek charges against police officers, the article argues that, while George Floyd’s murder was an important watershed moment, the national reaction was a response to decades of police brutality, all of which prosecutors enable when they turn a blind eye.
Gardner and Krasner charge that prosecutors have long shirked their responsibilities in the criminal justice machine. Instead of checking crime, they have helped to create it, and instead of encouraging police officers to model lawfulness, they have systematically sanctioned misconduct, they said.
“Too many prosecutors are content to simply look the other way,” said Gardner. “There are numerous elected prosecutors across the country who have never prosecuted a police officer, even when the facts clearly call for it.”
When prosecutors hold police officers to lower standards than the law demands, officers with histories of misconduct are allowed to continue policing. These officers, knowing that discipline for malpractice is unlikely, perpetuate cycles of criminality by abusing their power and authority against the same marginalized communities, the op-ed notes.
The two prosecutors cite a Philadelphia Inquirer report that released police records showing over 100 cases of misconduct within the city’s police force that were dismissed or overturned by their internal review committee.
The effect of a lax discipline culture in police departments is two-fold, claim the prosecutors.
First, it signifies to police officers that oversteps while on duty—both the countless small infractions that never get reported and the gross miscarriages of justice that take lives—will not be punished. Second, it reiterates to the public, especially to communities that are consistently victims of over-policing, that police officers exist to hurt them, not protect them.
“Police officers have too much power, and keeping officers who abuse that power on the force and relying on them in court destroys public trust and leads to even more damage down the road,” the DAs write.
While prosecutors theoretically exist as a counterweight to criminality, they’ve come to participate in a protective symbiotic relationship with police officers, even when officers breach the law, said Gardner and Krasner, who lay out a plan for prosecutors to harness their authority in the courts to curtail crime instead of promoting it.
“Prosecutors have an important role to play in breaking this cycle. We must treat officers like everyone else and show that no one is above the law,” they note.
Gardner, who in her tenure as chief prosecutor of St. Louis has already investigated a former FBI agent, indicted the former Missouri governor, and brought charges against more than a dozen police officers, argues that prosecutors not only have a responsibility to charge police officers with misconduct when the facts support it, but also have a responsibility to refuse calling police officers with histories of misconduct to testify in court.
“An arrest, let alone a conviction, can upend a person’s entire life. The potential harm is far too severe to rely on the word of a police officer who has been proven to be untrustworthy,” she said.
Her office, along with Krasner’s in Philadelphia, has created “exclusion lists” of officers with proven track records of dishonesty who will not take the stand in their trials and whose word alone will not be the bases of charges they bring.
Although the police departments in Philadelphia and St. Louis have filed lawsuits in response to these lists, courts in both cities ruled that it is a prosecutor’s prerogative to determine the credibility of their testifying witnesses.
Gardner and Krasner encourage district attorney’s offices across the country to follow their lead. These policies, they argue, are the kinds of proactive steps that “root out the bad actors” in police forces before they can commit crimes against the communities they are hired to protect.
Structural change, however, cannot come about only from prosecutorial reform, they said. Citing the need for changes in union contracts that make disciplining officers nearly impossible, and training that better tunes officers’ instincts to “begin with how to de-escalate, not aggravate,” the article also calls for police departments to reevaluate how they wish to operate in a world that has emphatically denounced their current practices.
Of course, all of this assumes the necessity of police forces existing at all. Gardner and Krasner also nod to the growing calls to abolish police departments, not in their entirety, but in many of the roles they currently occupy.
“We need to stop asking the police to do so much. Right now, we rely on them to be mental health providers and family counselors and to solve substance use disorders,” they point out.
Gardner and Krasner said they recognize that their proposed policies are just band-aids to a hemorrhaging problem caused by American policing. Refusing to allow cops to testify and pressuring unions to rewrite contracts will not solve the racism and prejudice that underlies police departments nationwide.
But they note as prosecutors across the country rethink their response to police brutality (most recently to the killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta), policies like this help to shape a culture that prevents someone like Derek Chauvin, who had more than 17 complaints of misconduct before he killed George Floyd (as reported by the New York Times), from putting on a uniform.
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