For the past couple of years I’ve been obsessed with stories of cops murdering and maiming citizens and never being held accountable for it. The scenarios are always the same, and have happened literally thousands of times:
A cop maims or murders a citizen who was doing nothing wrong, or perhaps suspected of some minor infraction.
The cop is given a paid vacation while the police investigate themselves.
The local news covers the story, and often gleefully vilifying the victim. The mainstream media ignores it.
The “investigation” determines the cop acted appropriately, and he goes back on the streets.
It often ends there, but if there is enough public outcry, the prosecutor may send the case to the grand jury. Grand juries, who are famous for indicting nearly everyone brought before them, almost never indict a cop. The cop goes back on the streets.
In the extremely rare case where the cop is indicted, a jury that includes people with ties to the police nearly always declares him not guilty. The cop goes back on the streets.
In the extremely, extremely rare case where a cop is convicted, he is given a pathetically light sentence.
After the cop is cleared in one of these steps, there is an inevitable civil suit. Civil courts are not controlled by prosecutors, so the victims (or their surviving family members) usually win, and six and seven figure judgments are common. In every case, the money is paid by the taxpayers, not the cops who caused the damage.
This scenario has been played out thousands of times. Each incident reinforces what cops already know: they can do whatever they want with no fear of recrimination. The odds of them ever receiving any punishment, regardless of the egregiousness of their crimes, are so small they are virtually non-existent.
I’ve been waiting, for years, for the mainstream media to cover the story of these thousands of murders and maimings. It finally happed with Ferguson, which is unfortunate, because the facts of that case are not clear-cut (partly because the police have intentionally obfuscated them). However, the cases of Eric Garner and John Crawford are clear-cut – the cops murdered those men. And the grand juries, of course, cleared them of any wrongdoing.
This has been going on for decades. It appears to be escalating, but we can’t be sure. A twenty-year-old federal law requires police departments to report such incidents to the justice department, but most cops ignore this law the same way they ignore every other law. The only things bringing these incidents to light are citizens with video cameras, recording the events in often-horrific detail.
Obama wants to spend a quarter of a billion dollars to put cameras on every cop. Cop cameras have been implemented in a few jurisdictions, and seem to have a slightly calming effect on testosterone-infected officers, but not enough to make a significant difference. It’s common for the cameras to “malfunction” just moments before a cop goes Rambo on a citizen. More importantly, cops don’t appear to care about video evidence. Why should they? Clear and convincing videos proved the cops murdered Eric Gartner and John Crawford, but it didn’t matter, not even a little, to the fate of the murderers. They’re still free.
Changing the system is a pipe-dream. Cops are the violent arm of The State, and The State will do everything it can to protect them. Prosecutors will do everything possible to exonerate them. Grand juries will keep setting them free. It’s simply not possible to create effective change in the tens of thousands of jurisdictions in the US.
Citizen review boards are toothless, and a waste of time. All they can do is make recommendations, which are summarily ignored.
Calls for police to pay for their own liability insurance, which would become unaffordable after a large judgment or two, sound workable, but the police unions will never allow it.
Special state or federal prosecutors, assigned to handle police violence, sound like a good idea. But they’d still be an arm of the state, and are unlikely to make any real difference. The most we could hope for would be a couple of extra convictions before they become as complicit in the violence as the rest of the system.
But there is one thing that could dramatically reduce police violence, rather quickly.
The Supreme Court created the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which removes personal responsibility from violent cops and transfers the liability to the local government. Removing qualified immunity and making cops financially responsible for the judgments against them, would cause a rapid change in police interactions with citizens.
Currently, cops have no reason to fear any repercussions for their actions, no matter how egregious. Making them personally responsible for civil judgments would give them a powerful incentive to act like peace officers, instead of the unaccountable standing army they’ve become.
Imagine what would happen the first time a cop has to sell his house and vehicles, empty his bank accounts, and liquidate his pension to pay off a multi-million dollar judgment.
Police all over the country will howl. They’ll claim it will make cops hesitate before gunning down one of us, which could get them killed. They’ll set up a crowd-funding site to mitigate the damage. (Officer Wilson made over $400k for shooting Brown. The head of the organization that raised the money was also the prosecutor in the case.) They’ll preach about how dangerous and vital their job is, and how nobody on the outside can understand it.
The second time it happens they’ll do the same. And the third and the forth times as well. But when the count gets higher, when a dozen of their brothers in blue have been impoverished for their violence, they’ll realize that things have finally changed, and now, for the first time in decades, there are consequences for their brutality.
They’ll think twice about conducting a 4 a.m. SWAT raid on a citizen’s home based on the claims of some unreliable informant. Maybe they’ll cancel it completely. At the very least, they’ll make sure they’re at the right address. They’ll pause before smashing someone’s face into a concrete wall. They’ll take a moment to consider alternatives to emptying their guns into one of us. They’ll try to come up with a peaceful solution to a situation, instead of immediately escalating it into a violent encounter. Hell, they may even shoot fewer dogs.
The most violent gang in the country will have no choice but to chill out a bit, quite a bit, and we’ll all be safer than we are now.
And the good cops, the ones who really do try to protect and serve? It will have no effect on the way they do their jobs.
A side benefit will be a reduction of public anger. The marches and protests we’re seeing are the direct result of cops getting away with whatever they do. Seeing them actually punished will have a strong calming effect on the community. It would be great to see bad cops go to jail, but since that’s not going to happen, we may be satisfied seeing them living in ratty apartments and driving a twenty-year-old beaters for the rest of their lives. Imagine the joy of seeing the cops who murdered Kelly Thomas becoming homeless themselves.
The beauty of this solution is the ease of implementing it. We don’t have to change a broken, unfixable system, or spend billions of dollars on solutions that won’t change anything. All we have to do is eliminate the qualified immunity doctrine. Simple. Straightforward.
And very, very satisfying.