The video images were clear and unmistakable. Nobody could deny what they were seeing, or explain it away.
White Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin had his knee on the neck of black suspect George Floyd, ignoring Floyd’s plea that “I can’t breathe.” Three other cops—two white, one Asian—found nothing unusual or distressing about the situation.
Chauvin’s knee remained on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, every second of it recorded. Chauvin paid no attention to this. Why should he care? A total of 18 complaints lodged against Chauvin—one for every year on the police force—have resulted in just one reprimand.
Officer Tou Thao, one of the three officers who stood by while Floyd died, was previously sued for excessive use of force, an action that was settled for $25,000. Why are people like these allowed to “protect and serve”?
That’s a question asked often by people who study these issues, and the answer is simple: A series of legal rulings and statutory and contractual protections surrounding their employment and discipline protect all but the very worst of bad apples from being fired. The result is heavy legal costs to taxpayers, avoidable deaths, and a crisis of confidence in our law enforcement agencies currently playing out across the country.
The problem is well documented by people such as law professors Kyle Rozema of Washington University and Max Schanzenbach of Northwestern University, the latest to draw attention to the issue in a peer-reviewed study of civilian complaints against the police in Chicago.
“We find that officers with the most complaints—the worst 5% in particular—are by far more likely than other officers to have large civil judgments leveled against them later in their careers,” the authors wrote. “They are also more likely to be cited for dereliction of duty and off-duty misconduct. We estimate that in Chicago the worst 5% of officers account for a third of all civilian complaints. In short, such officers are likely to be bad apples.”
Yet few of these complaints ever result in meaningful discipline. The authors found that just 2% of civilian complaints in Chicago were sustained, the majority resulting in a one-day suspension or less. (The rate is around 1% in Minneapolis.)
The problems don’t end even when bad cops are fired. A Washington Post study estimated that between 2006 and 2017, the nation’s largest departments fired at least 1,881 officers for misconduct, yet 451 were later reinstated—most after arbitration.
The Minneapolis police union has vowed to fight to ensure the officers fired for Floyd’s killing get their jobs back. Lt. Bob Kroll, the union’s president, said he’s “worked with the four defense attorneys that are representing each of our four terminated individuals under criminal investigation, in addition to our labor attorneys to fight for their jobs.”
The crime may seem obvious, but as we learned in the Rodney King case, that doesn’t mean a conviction will follow. Many jurors are reluctant to convict policemen of anything, particularly when it involves a white cop and a black protagonist.
The inability—and in some cities, unwillingness—of police departments to police themselves has led to an erosion of confidence in law enforcement agencies, and now, demands for truly radical changes in how they operate.
Front and center is a demand to “defund” police departments around the country. As is usually the case these days, both sides of the political divide are muddling the debate by coming up with their own definitions of the term in an effort to score political points.
I support defunding if it means taking police funds used to deal with homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse and other quality-of-life issues, and hiring more social and other workers trained to deal with these problems. I oppose defunding if it means cutting the police budget to fund more worthless social programs aimed at minority communities.
In any event, cooler heads—regardless of their race—realize we need police departments. The police are not perfect, but they are indispensible. Looting and increased lawlessness will become a regular occurrence if police forces are weakened to the point where they can’t do their job, and those said to benefit from defunding will suffer the most.
But it is also obvious that change is needed. If police continue to be shielded from all but their most egregious actions by a combination of implied immunity, secrecy surrounding discipline, and the blue wall of silence, the public will eventually lose confidence in our law enforcement agencies. To forestall that day, the following changes need to be considered:
–A Supreme Court ruling known as implied immunity shields police from liability for official acts. We need a federal law that holds officers accountable for violating civil rights.
–The Justice Department provides almost $2 billion a year in grants to state and local law enforcement, conditioned on compliance with federal civil rights laws. That clearly hasn’t worked. Conditions should be tightened to ensure the money goes only to departments following best police practices.
–Police chiefs must be given the power to fire bad officers and keep them off the force permanently. If an applicant was fired by another department or left under a cloud, chiefs should have that information available when making hiring decisions.
–Alternatively, fire the lowest performing 2% of policemen, helping to ensure the most violent, disrespectful and incompetent officers are dismissed each year. At the same time, reward the top-performing 5% of officers.
–Choke holds must be eliminated. Police have plenty of other ways to subdue suspects without putting their lives in danger.
–One of the major irritants of our failed war on drugs is the “no knock” warrants used to justify many police searches in poor neighborhoods. As we saw recently in Louisville, careless application of them can lead to the death of innocent people. It is past time to eliminate them.
–Finally, law enforcement agencies need to tighten their hiring standards, with more emphasis on the mental and emotional stability of applicants. If that means higher salaries, it’s a price worth paying.
These changes will lead to fairer treatment of all citizens without taking away the ability of police to go after the bad guys. It is possible to have social justice and law and order at the same time.