In a scene from “True Detective,” a woman says to Matthew McConaughey’s character, Rust Cohle, a Louisiana State Police detective, “You’re kinda strange like you might be dangerous.” He replies, “Of course I’m dangerous I’m police. I can do terrible things to people with impunit.” The almost daily episodes of police misconduct did not start in a vacuum. Police Departments and individual police officers are rarely held accountable for their actions.
In March, the Rochester, New York police responded to a call for a man acting erratically. Daniel Prude complies with officers’ requests to get on the ground, and police cuff his hands behind his back without incident. Prude then begins making irrational statements and spitting on the ground. The police place a hood over his head. After attempting to rise to his feet, although still subdued, three officers hold him down until he stops breathing. Mr. Prude died seven days later after being removed from life support. Neither the police nor the Monroe County District Attorney’s office took any legal or investigatory action following the incident. On the contrary, there are now allegations of a cover-up.
Prude’s family was finally able to obtain the videos through a legal public records request. They released the videos publicly last week. Seven Rochester police officers were then suspended with pay. The New York Attorney General is only now five months later convening a grand jury. Yesterday the Rochester police chief and entire command staff resigned rather than face the public consequences. All of these actions were not in response to an investigation of the incident but rather to the public disclosure of the video.
In Kenosha, Wisconsin Jacob Blake, who witnesses say was unarmed and was trying to deescalate a domestic situation, was shot in the back seven times by an officer. The incident was also captured on video. The level for an arrest is probable cause, simply stated it is more likely than not a person committed a crime. In more serious cases, Defendants are often arrested and held on lesser charges pending an investigation. The shooting of Blake would appear to be, at a minimum, a Class A Misdemeanor Battery under Wisconsin law. Prosecutors have taken no action. A civilian would be arrested and held on high bail.
These incidents are simply the most recently publicized, officers have repeatedly and consistently been unaccountable for their actions. No charges have been filed after six months in the March police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. Ms. Taylor was sitting at home when shot by police.
But even uncontroverted video and media attention doesn’t always result in accountability. In New York, peaceful protesters of the George Floyd incident were met with police violence. Officers, contrary to public law, covered their badge numbers. The police’s violent response was met with congratulations by the Police Commissioner. No prosecutorial agencies have announced any action.
Unabated police misconduct is not limited to violent interaction with civilians. In Massachusetts, forty-six state troopers were implicated in an overtime fraud ring costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Only ten troopers were charged criminally. Of those that have plead guilty many have received as little as one day of jail time. Fourteen immediately retired and were allowed to keep six-figure pensions. Twenty-two officers kept their jobs and pensions upon the payment of restitution. The lenient consequences were based in part on the officers’ years of public service. This is an illogical argument. The years of service were spent stealing from the public. Civilians charged with relatively small amounts of welfare and other public fraud often face jail time and other negative, life-altering consequences.
Law enforcement is a necessary and laudable institution. Given the position of public trust police officers should be held to a higher standard. Presently, there are very few cases where they are being held accountable to any standard. In the words of American revolutionary Thomas Paine, “A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”
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