at a loss

I am shocked, stunned, and maddened at the fact that Eric Gardner’s murderer will not even be prosecuted for a crime that was caught on camera. I am also deeply worried about the power of the state in a society where the message to police officers becomes anything that happens on the job will not be prosecuted under the law. You might lose your badge, you might lose your job, but we — as a society — will legally condone whatever you do.

I am not a person to typically denounce the tyranny of the state. In fact, I tend to believe that most problems can be addressed by state action. But this is a systemic flaw that must be addressed. If it doesn’t, it not only hurts those affected by police violence, but it sows mistrust in police and leads people to back non-state actors with their own incentives. Paramilitary violence will further escalate the situation if officers of the law are not held to account.

I am struggling with how to talk with my students today about all of this. It is our last class meeting and I had planned for the last day to be a working day for their final assignment. Apropos of the conversation on policy and agency, I feel like this needs to be addressed. I need to provide them with some way to see how they fit in this picture. Any ideas would be most welcomed.

I have also thought about what I think needs to happen. Within three weeks, three very different places have been in the news for police violence. The solution must be systemic, but I am somewhat at a loss to figure out what it is. I am sure that others know far more about this than me, but the following seem to me to be top priorities:

  • Require state or federal investigations of all use of police force. Local prosecutors and local police departments rely on each other too much for there not to be a conflict of interest in trying cases. Local police could retaliate against local prosecutors for pushing too hard. State and federal prosecutors are, to a larger degree, immune from the need for a daily working relationship that can cause prosecutors to be biased in prosecuting police officers.
  • Require police officers to wear body cameras. I have seen the case made that Eric Garner’s case shows that cameras will be ineffective. I disagree. The fact that everyone could see what happened shows how appalling the failure to prosecute this crime is. One or two events can be chalked up to bad actors; systematic evidence of police brutality becomes harder to ignore.
  • Change the law regarding the justified use of force. Figure out some way to make the use of force a last resort. Police officers and police unions will hate this and fight it tooth and nail. But there must be accountability somewhere in the system to prevent the state from killing people.

8 thoughts on “at a loss”

  1. The body camera idea has legs and should help, but police get off even when their car cameras or bystander cameras catch them in action, and police learn how to adapt their actions to the cameras or get them turned off at strategic moments.

    I already spent time on Ferguson issues in several classes and need to move on, even though this latest outrage is even more egregious, if that is possible.

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  2. Disband the American Bar, set shorter term limits on DAs, abolish tenure for judges, disband the police union, fire police officers who disproportionately charge people with obstruction and resisting in order to cover up their abuses.
    The police, military, justice, department of defense, and so forth are the wings of government most ripe for tyranny, yet subject to the least occupational competition. That’s backwards.

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    1. I fail to see how the response to persistent racism in American policing is to get rid of police unions. Of the links that you describe above, Sullivan complains about the specific processes used for internal investigations. Why would the same leadership that conceded to those procedures in negotiations hold officers to account? As opposed to say, the Department of Justice who is not beholden to local stakeholders at all?

      The second says that we should get rid of police unions because of a few examples of (admittedly) bad behavior. In that case, then we should all be communists since I could name a laundry list of capitalists who acted badly.

      Sullivan’s case against teacher’s unions is specious. Somehow asking for due process at work has turned into “opposing all democratic reforms.” So, if I understand Sullivan correctly, we need dictators in charge of schools and police to create more democracy.

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      1. Will Wilkinson is guest blogging; it’s not Andrew Sullivan.

        “Why would the same leadership that conceded to those procedures in negotiations hold officers to account?”

        I don’t understand what you mean. (genuinely, not the playing dumb version)

        “In that case, then we should all be communists since I could name a laundry list of capitalists who acted badly.”

        This is a red herring. Neither author suggested that we replace police with for profit private security forces. They suggested that we disband police unions in order to eliminate a coordinated lobby that uses its dues to resist democratic oversight.

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      2. I think I see what you mean now about officials, but I don’t think what officials agree to in negotiations with the police union represent their true preferences.

        Take the example of the Seattle police chief who wanted to demilitarize police after the WTO protest, and got bulldozed by the Union, or Bill de Blasio criticizing the NYPD recently and getting ostracized from police funerals. Without knowing more about the actual negotiation process, I infer that officials are logrolling their true preferences in order to avoid public slander and advocacy from Unions during elections, and that without the Unions, officials would be more accountable to local constituencies.

        Let’s say Justice launches a big new bureau to watch local police departments. What happens when local police unions get together and whip up more rhetoric about protecting the brotherhood to pressure Justice the same way they are with lower level offices?

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      3. I missed that Wilkinson was blogging. My apologies.

        Your comments betray the very problem: negotiations never reveal true preferences. Presumably negotiations would not happen if both sides could acquire their true preferences. The weak-kneed public officials who agree to contracts that allow the procedures you find objectionable are the same ones that we are to then trust when a controversial police shooting comes up? Either they stand up for what they really believe or they are pols subject to the whims of public opinion.

        “Neither author suggested that we replace police with for profit private security forces.”

        That’s true, but that is the logical conclusion of your original comment: “The police, military, justice, department of defense, and so forth are the wings of government most ripe for tyranny, yet subject to the least occupational competition.”

        There doesn’t need to be a new bureau to watch the police. U.S. Attorneys could be brought in to handle indictments. The same conflicts would not present as much of a problem; rarely does the U.S. Attorney rely in any systematic way on the cooperation of local police. Let’s say that the Cleveland union chief protested; he can express his opinion and can try to sway his public opinion (that is, after all, his First Amendment right), but he won’t affect whether the U.S. Attorney gets convictions in the future.

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      4. That’s not the logical conclusion of my argument any more than North Korean socialism is the logical conclusion of yours.

        “The weak-kneed public officials who agree to contracts that allow the procedures you find objectionable are the same ones that we are to then trust when a controversial police shooting comes up?”

        Yes, given a political lobby that does not present a unified front by threatening its member’s or outside allies with ejection and retaliation, the idea is that politicians would be freer to assert their preferences — preferences that they demonstrably share with their constituents.

        That is the idea behind undoing Citizen’s United, right?

        In any event, it’s good to see that conservatives are finally turning the tide on police unions and libertarians aren’t alone: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/394743/its-time-take-police-unions-lucy-morrow-caldwell

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