Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Needed Checks and Balances on Police Power

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the systemic racism of the US criminal justice system and the Black Lives Matter movement are getting much needed attention.  In addition, I hope our response to this tragedy leads to a deep dive into power and what leads to abuses of power.  I hope we get to the bottom of the question of why a police officer like the one who killed George Floyd continues to be on the force, carry a gun, interact with the public after 18 complaints were filed against him.

The people who I think are most crucial to this conversation are the ones that are busy dealing with the nationwide reaction to this killing: the law enforcement agents that abhor this kind of violence and are the focus of a lot of hatred right now when they weren't even involved in this situation.  They are trying to keep order and peace as protests unfold with varying degrees of violence and destruction, but when things settle, I think they are the people that we most need in a conversation that would lead to our best response to the ongoing issue of police brutality.

I'd like to ask these officers:
  • In general, are these bad cops noticeable right away when they get on the force?  Is it a particular personality type that is attracted to the power of law enforcement that we need to be on the lookout for?
  • Are there instances when there is an officer of integrity and fairness that starts to make a turn after a certain amount of time on the force?  What events might trigger that change?  What amount of time?
  • Does the stress or number of hours lead to the types of callous and aggressive decision-making we're seeing?  What are the optimum conditions to facilitate cool headed decision making?
  • What kind-of training do you think is lacking and needed to help officers keep both themselves and the citizens they interact with during an encounter safe?  What kind-of training around race have you received and has it made a difference?
  • Why aren't bad cops fired, demoted, charged?  We hear so often when these incidents happen that the officer had a reputation for a long time, so what are the factors that keep these officers out on the street?
One reason why we can't get rid of abusive police officers is because of what is known as the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights.  Minnesota is one of the states that has such a law, and it is "intended to protect American law enforcement personnel from investigation and prosecution arising from conduct during official performance of their duties, and provides them with privileges based on due process additional to those normally provided to other citizens." (from the Wikipedia site linked above)  I have more research to do on this, but it certainly seems like one of the pathways needing further scrutiny in our response.

Another blockade to holding these officers accountable is the doctrine of qualified immunity, explored in this article: George Floyd's Death Must Be a Catalyst for Accountability  Per this article, to get around the qualified immunity doctrine and sue a police officer for an act of violence like occurred against Floyd, his family would need to find a precedent case with the same or similar facts in the relevant jurisdiction, which is nearly impossible to do.  Again, need more research, but seems like another avenue for important investigation here.

Also, I'm a long time fan of Bryan Stevenson and the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, and when I was reading a recent blog post on the EJI website, I learned that back in May of 2015, Bryan Stevenson was on a task force assembled by President Obama which put together this report: The President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  My understanding is that the recommendations aren't currently moving forward.  Again, I need to do more research here, but this does seem like a useful starting point for many key questions of the moment.

Law enforcement officers need power to keep communities safe.  We need them to have weapons, to be trained to protect themselves, the public and each other; we need them to feel able to rush into dangerous situations and keep the peace.  And yet, power is so susceptible to abuse.  I first learned about the 1971 Stanford prison guard study in college, and although I see by looking it up now that it's conclusions are suspect, I still feel in my own gut that there is a truth to its conclusion about the corrupting influence of having power over people.  When a police officer or prison guard has power over people, this dynamic can create a sense of identity in the holder of power.  It can lead that person to dehumanize those he or she has power over, and it can lead to the crossing of ethical boundaries with those people, even without the one in power realizing what they are doing.

We need to look deeply at these dynamics and the roadblocks to removal of corrupt officers.  We'd also do well to study and learn from officers who have had long successful careers wielding this power with great integrity.

With so much attention and energy around these issues, there is great potential in this moment, and I hope we channel at least some of that potential into working on creating a more appropriate balance between meeting law enforcement objectives and adding checks to decrease the occurrence of these intolerable abuses of power.  If we work together here, maybe one day these heartbreaking incidents will truly be a thing of the past.   

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