Jurisprudence

Prosecutors Shouldn’t Wait for a National Tragedy to Hold Police Accountable

As prosecutors in Philadelphia and St. Louis, we’ve created rules to prevent abusive officers from corrupting the entire system.

A crowd of protesters hold up signs demanding justice for Rayshard Brooks
A protest in Atlanta on Monday calls for justice for Rayshard Brooks. The Fulton County DA has now criminally charged the officer who killed Brooks. Wes Bruer/Getty Images

The anger and grief we are seeing in the streets is not solely about the killing of George Floyd. It derives from decades of abuses never acknowledged or addressed, decades of unwillingness to demand better, and decades of never holding police accountable while failing to put an end to policies that have destroyed entire families and communities. People are crying out because nothing seems to change. Police continue to abuse their power, yet almost never face meaningful consequences.

Prosecutors have an important role to play in breaking this cycle. We must treat officers like everyone else and show that no one is above the law. We have tried to do that in our cities. It is admittedly difficult. Police departments often fail to properly and thoroughly investigate shootings and other crimes committed by their officers. For instance, a report last year by the Philadelphia Inquirer uncovered “secret” police records showing that over 100 police officers had charges of misconduct dismissed or overturned by the police arbitration board that is charged internally with resolving investigations into officers for misconduct. Many prioritize protecting the “blue wall of silence,” the refusal to inform on another officer, even when that person has committed a crime, an act of misconduct, or even a shocking act of brutality. One of us has even investigated cases where officers were themselves victims of police violence, and they still refused to provide information about the incidents. There are numerous elected prosecutors across the country who have never prosecuted a police officer, even when the facts clearly call for it.

But prosecutors’ power to hold police accountable is not limited to filing criminal charges when officers abuse their power. Prosecutors may not be able to fire police officers, but we can refuse to call officers with a history of misconduct or dishonest behavior as witnesses, and we can decline to accept criminal charges sought by them. An arrest, let alone a conviction, can upend a person’s entire life. The potential harm is far too severe to rely on the word of a police officer who has been proven to be untrustworthy.

Our offices have compiled exclusion lists of officers whose credibility is so damaged that we will not rely on them to testify in court or bring charges based on their word alone in any case. We felt it was our obligation to do so because if a police officer lacks integrity and honesty, the entire criminal justice system is compromised. In each case, the police force fought back. The local police unions in both Philadelphia and St. Louis filed lawsuits to, in essence, prevent the do-not-call lists from going into effect; they were more concerned with publicity stunts than finding ways to help the police department become a more trusted organization throughout the community. Thankfully, the courts found that a prosecutor has the inherent discretion to determine if a police officer’s testimony would be trustworthy. Still, those police unions, like police unions in most jurisdictions across the country, continue to fight against every attempt to bring a semblance of accountability to the police force.

Police officers have too much power, and keeping officers who abuse that power on the force and relying on them in court destroys public trust and leads to even more damage down the road. Prosecutors should not wait to act until an out-of-control police officer causes a national tragedy. Most officers go to work each day and admirably perform their job. But every day, there are some officers who inflict unacceptable harms on communities by using racist or xenophobic language, fabricating evidence, being dishonest about their investigations, conducting illegal searches and seizures, and harassing and disrespecting the individuals they encounter. Too many prosecutors are content to simply look the other way.

Prosecutors cannot transform police culture alone. Our local officials and our police departments also need to take action. There need to be changes made to police union contracts so that our police chiefs can effectively discipline bad officers. We need to increase training for our officers so that they know how to accurately assess danger, and their instincts begin with how to de-escalate, not aggravate, potentially violent situations. And we need to stop asking the police to do so much. Right now, we rely on them to be mental health providers and family counselors and to solve substance use disorders. That isn’t fair to them, or our community, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Obviously, none of these solutions will fix the underlying racism that infects all of these issues. There is no question that black and brown people are overpoliced and they are harassed, arrested, abused, and killed disproportionately by the police. We must keep drawing attention to the systemic racism that undergirds policing and work throughout our communities to reform the entire system. But a first step in this long-overdue reckoning must be prosecutors using their discretion, authority, and responsibility to the communities they serve to root out the bad actors from our police forces.

Prosecutors have the authority to make those calls, and many are starting to wield that power in the last two weeks alone. But it should not have taken more killings of unarmed black men and national protests for this to occur. When prosecutors, police chiefs, and other elected officials do nothing, they send a message to these communities that their lives don’t matter. It is no wonder people are so angry. It is long past time for all of us to recognize that turning a blind eye to police misconduct and violence makes our communities less safe. We must commit to building a country that truly cares and values the life of each and every person.