Keeping the Police Honest

America’s police departments need greater accountability—and it must come from outside the forces.

Photo by Antonprado/Thinkstock
There’s shockingly little accountability for police and other law enforcement.

Photo by Antonprado/Thinkstock

“I’ll put a round in your ass so quick” sounds like the kind of macho quip you hear in an action movie or prime-time police thriller, after the hero has confronted the villain and the two are stuck in a standoff.

But it’s a real life line. It comes from a police stop in February 2013, where a Florida cop pointed his gun in a car full of black men who refused to stop filming the encounter. The men were rude, but they weren’t dangerous. Nonetheless, police escalated the situation, arresting the driver and threatening the passengers.

Watch the video. What’s striking is the speed with which the gun comes out. In just a few seconds, one man is on the ground with an officer behind him, and the other cop is in the car brandishing a weapon, even as a passenger records the entire interaction. And this isn’t unusual. It’s not hard to find cases where police continued to abuse their authority, even as bystanders record their behavior. Indeed, in some cases—like the one in Florida—they become more aggressive, reacting against the cameras as if they were illegal.

Chris Lollie was sitting in a public area outside First National Bank in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in January when a police officer approached and escorted him away. He recorded the encounter, which began with his explanation to the officer—he was waiting for his children to come from school—and ended with a second officer arriving to arrest him. “Please don’t touch me,” says Lollie. “You’re going to go to jail, then,” says the second officer. “I’m not doing anything wrong,” replies Lollie. Soon after, one officer pushes the cellphone away—which drops—and the other uses a Taser. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m a working man. I take care of my kids. And I get this?” says Lollie to the officers. “And you tase me. For what? I don’t have any weapons. You’re the ones with the weapons here.”

Likewise, when Juaquez Johnson saw police punching his brother, Octavius, outside of their Omaha, Nebraska, home, he tried to record the encounter, for proof if something happened. Officers demanded the phone, and when he refused, they chased him into his home, throwing his aunt from her wheelchair, arresting him, and confiscating the phone. Charges against the Johnson brothers were eventually dropped, but the family is suing the Omaha Police Department, alleging excessive force and search and seizure without a warrant.

And in Ferguson, Missouri, SWAT-clad police targeted cameras and journalists, arresting Ryan Reilly of Huffington Post and Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post for recording several officers in a McDonald’s, and using tear gas against camera crews stationed on the street. In one instance, police dismantled camera equipment after pushing out journalists with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Recording police officers isn’t a crime. In some states, you may have to identify yourself, but overall, everyone is free to record law enforcement. The problem is that most police weren’t trained for a world where cameras are ubiquitous and almost anyone can provide documentary footage of a police encounter to media or other groups. And that lack of training can lead to tension from police, who might feel their authority is being challenged.

More broadly, despite the proliferation of civilian complaint groups and internal review boards, there’s shockingly little accountability for police and other law enforcement. Take police-involved deaths. According to one analysis from Talking Points Memo, indictments for police homicides are rare, and convictions almost nonexistent:

The FBI reported 410 justifiable homicides by law enforcement in 2012. The number of indictments appear to be minimal after a TPM review of available press reports. A 1979 study found three convictions out of the 1,500 police killings it studied over a five-year period.

Brutality complaints are far more common than police homicides, but overall, few officers are indicted for unjustified use of force, and even fewer are convicted. By and large, police officers receive wide latitude for their actions, and it takes an egregious case of misconduct before anyone faces accountability.

Take Jordan Miles. In 2010, the Pittsburgh teen was ambushed by undercover officers while walking to his grandmother’s house. He ran, startled by the men, and fell. The officers assaulted Miles—repeatedly hitting him in the head—and arrested him for aggravated assault, loitering, and resisting arrest. As is usual, the attack prompted a lawsuit from Miles’ family, and as is usual, a federal jury found the officers not guilty of excessive force or malicious arrest.

In general, we understand that public servants have to be held accountable and that it’s best when it comes from an outside, independent force. It’s why politicians face an electorate, why Congress can investigate the executive branch, and why bureaucrats—at every level—are audited. It’s the whole reason there is a fierce public battle over the merits of greater teacher accountability.

When it comes to police departments, however, this goes out the window. Not only do we allow police to police themselves, but even independent oversight agencies often lack the teeth to take meaningful action against police misconduct. For example, the Civilian Police Review Board of Durham, North Carolina, is empowered to do one thing: Weigh in on whether Durham police internal affairs is doing its job. The state NAACP wants a stronger board, and for good reason; even under the best conditions, this is not a recipe for effective oversight.

At the moment, there’s an activist and citizen drive for police departments to use body cameras to record all interactions between officers and the public. The idea is that an “objective” source of information could act as a check on police behavior, as well as evidence when there’s an incident. But absent a policy shift for law enforcement, this isn’t a panacea. “Because police departments would ultimately be in charge of storing, analyzing, and disseminating body cam footage, concerns arise over whether if the footage would be disclosed and left untampered,” notes Lauren C. Williams for ThinkProgress.

She’s right. Body cameras or not, without a change in the culture of policing—without a serious commitment to cooperation and transparency—we’re left in the same spot: with watchers who aren’t actually watched.