Mollie Wilson O’Reilly has a pretty damning post on police accountability at dotCommonweal. Is justice perverted in our country? How accurate is this citation from Brian Beutler:
The point would be to eliminate the conflict of interest that arises—as it did in Ferguson and Staten Island—when local prosecutors investigate the officers on whom they rely for evidence, cooperation, and political endorsements.
Police and prosecutors in bed with each other. That’s a pretty broad accusation of corruption. It may well be accurate.
I noticed that those St Louis Ram football players are getting a good bit of flak for “hands up, don’t shoot” at their game Sunday. Reminds me a bit of that protest at the Mexico City Olympics. Good for athletes to bring this awareness that one, they are aware, and two, the rest of us can’t think we can go to our own Special Entertainment Place to get away from the real cares of the world.
There’s fuss from St Louis police–well, too bad on that. And the bar that wanted to divest of broadcasting and catering to Ram fans–if its good for business, I’m sure that will be whatever decision is made. The NFL declined to censure the players: at least they finally got something right this season. Maybe it’s the last straw to send the Rams back to LA.
I have a cousin who is a retired police officer. I don’t know him well. He has struck me as a calm and collected guy. Probably most police officers are like this, defusing incidents, keeping the temperature down. The bad eggs get the headlines. Those same eggs won’t go to jail, but some of them do lose their jobs. There are always consequences for unjust, sinful, and wrong acts outside of a criminal justice system. Police officers do not get indicted, but the price is paid: a little more erosion of community spirit, a little more distrust of the brother and sister officers, a little less respect among the people. Just because police go unpunished legally doesn’t mean that they escape the natural consequences of corruption. Those consequences will be sometimes subtle, and probably more real than black pro athletes “embarrassing” white people on tv.
It occurs to me that a person serving as a peace officer in a community should be willing to lay down his or her life for an innocent civilian. Firefighters certainly do this in practice every time they enter a burning building. Should we ask anything less of other public servants who do routinely risk life and health?
Hopefully, public servants of all types and community leaders will be willing to “man up” and resist the urge to circle the wagons.
Here’s the cognitive difference that no pundit that I’ve yet encountered has brought to bear:
Why were there at least five, if not six officers within the immediate presence and assistance to the one officer concerned in the Garner case, none of which mitigated the use of force FOR a “perp” who was violating a fairly mealy mouthed tax law in the Staten Island incident, AND not a single other officer who, after Wilson policed a call regarding a domestic dispute involving a toddler minor, responded to either that call, or any other call Wilson would have made regarding the initial encounter with Michael Brown?
We’re talking breakdowns of protocols in both situations that end tragically for two lives, their bereaved, and now a disparate nation.
Pretty thin stuff here. Ms. O’Reilly and Mr. Beutler view the no true bills returned by the Ferguson and Staten Island grand juries as just two examples of a well-established pattern of local prosecutors’ unwillingness to properly pursue and secure indictments of police officers involved in fatal or violent encounters in the line of duty. Clicking through the various linked articles, however, one searches in vain for any supporting statistical analysis, case studies, or other empirical evidence. Instead one only finds the following passage:
“There is no uniform data on officer-involved shootings and indictments, but most criminologists agree that that few police officers are ever indicted, much less convicted, in shootings or other violent crimes.”
Even assuming the truth of the foregoing conclusion, both Ms. O’Reilly and Mr. Beutler admit only one possible explanation: local prosecutors tank cases out of solidarity with their criminal justice brethren. Although it is perhaps different in smaller communities, the NYC criminal justice system is hardly the monolith the authors suggest. In my experience, the various antagonisms between members of the Bronx County District Attorney’s and the NYPD in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” accurately illustrate the sometimes uneasy coexistence between the law and order elements of the NYC criminal justice system. As another example, many members of the NYPD are disdainful – for reasons that are only somewhat clear to me – of corrections officers employed by the NYC DOC. Moreover, the ostensible conflict of interest proffered by the authors cannot explain the willingness of prosecutors to pursue police corruption cases. In my younger days, I worked for a former Manhattan ADA who made her name by securing the conviction of numerous officers from the NYPD’s 30th Precinct on corruption charges during the 1990’s. Since that time, there have been several high profile corruption cases that have been successfully prosecuted. Again, why this should be the authors cannot possibly explain. Nor will they admit the possibility that many police prosecutions are ill-conceived from the beginning. As many commentators have noted in recent weeks, the fictional Justice Sol Wachter observed that “a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich if that’s what you wanted.” For what it’s worth, Rudolph Giuliani observed:
“Having read the transcripts now of the grand jury, FBI interviews and all of that, and having been a prosecutor for 13 years, I don’t see how this case normally would even have been brought to a grand jury.”
I have not followed the Ferguson and Garner matters that closely but the commentaries I have read generally offer facile explanations couched in black and white terms, both racially and morally, while avoiding any facts or arguments that might contradict the authors’ conclusions. I suppose we are all prone to this sort of confirmation bias and if, we are honest with ourselves, we must concede that the easy moral indignation expressed by so many is not an altogether unpleasant emotion.
In my younger days, I investigated or supervised the investigation of several hundred police misconduct complaints. As part of those investigations, I estimate that I interviewed close to a thousand police officers and civilians. During that time I also visited many of the most dangerous public housing projects in the city and sat face to face with alleged murderers and other violent criminals on Riker’s Island. I also participated in many training programs conducted by the NYPD Police Academy, including programs on the use of deadly force, and went on numerous ride-alongs with patrol officers. While my sample is certainly selected, it is not necessarily small and I have come to the following conclusions none of which is particularly original. It is undeniable that there are large swaths of the city that suffer from debilitating social pathologies and, even in this era, rampant crime. The victims of these crimes overwhelmingly live in the same areas and thus are in need of police protection. The police force is almost exclusively comprised of average individuals who, though thankful to have a job, often wish they were doing something else. The job can be extremely dangerous and difficult. Police officers, like public school teachers, must confront problems well outside their job description. In the aforementioned areas, there is substantial tension between the police and the community. Doubtless, there is often a racial component to this tension but it is not solely an issue of race. At least some of this tension is understandable if not justified. One the other hand, much of the animosity on both sides is not reasonable but self-defeating. It is extremely difficult to prove police misconduct as the context of police-civilian encounters almost always provides the possibility of a plausible if not actual justification. The blue wall of silence is real. Over a four year period, not once did I hear an officer knowingly incriminate another officer. It is difficult to obtain the cooperation of witnesses and eyewitness testimony is often reliable. Nevertheless, even the most honest and by the book officer will be the subject of several misconduct complaints over the course of his or her career. Even in the absence of overt hostility on either side, police-civilian encounters have the potential to escalate into dangerous situations. There are certainly bad and even evil police officers. Whether there are just a few bad apples or a more significant number I do not know. It is possible for a police officer to mistakenly shoot an unarmed individual without malevolence or even negligence. I would imagine that is among an officer’s worst nightmares.
Ugh, Why did I write that Wachter is fictional? He was indeed a real person and Chief Judge of the NYS Court of Appeals rather than a “Justice.”