Holding Cops Accountable

by Dish Staff

Michael Bell’s powerful article on the shooting of his son demonstrates just how hard it is:

I have known the name of the policeman who killed my son, Michael, for ten years. And he is still working on the force in Kenosha.

Yes, there is good reason to think that many of these unjustifiable homicides by police across the country are racially motivated. But there is a lot more than that going on here. Our country is simply not paying enough attention to the terrible lack of accountability of police departments and the way it affects all of us—regardless of race or ethnicity. Because if a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy — that was my son, Michael — can be shot in the head under a street light with his hands cuffed behind his back, in front of five eyewitnesses (including his mother and sister), and his father was a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew in three wars for his country — that’s me — and I still couldn’t get anything done about it, then Joe the plumber and Javier the roofer aren’t going to be able to do anything about it either.

Ed Krayewski criticizes how “none of the establishment activists who have attached themselves to the situation in Ferguson seem to be doing anything to focus people’s attentions on the systemic problems behind police brutality, starting with the propensity of most fatal police shootings to be ruled justified in a process shrouded in government secrecy and privilege”:

We shouldn’t have to read these kinds of stories and speculate about what happened, there ought to be a transparent process trusted by the public that can come to an understandable conclusion, whether you end up agreeing or not.

 Instead, cops and prosecutors act almost like a team during investigations of police shootings—it shouldn’t be surprising given that they do operate as a team in pretty much every other part of their jobs. And police generally control the narrative of a shooting, painting themselves in the most positive light possible and victims in the most negative light possible. Without an engaged national media they often get away with it.

Suderman examines Missouri’s standard for deadly force:

So, the suspect doesn’t have to be armed, and doesn’t even have to present an immediate threat. Instead, if an officer believes that there’s no other way to make the arrest happen, and also believes that the suspect has attempted to commit a felony, the officer is justified in using deadly force. If a cop wants to arrest someone, and has a “reasonable” belief that the person has even tried to commit a felony, he or she is allowed to kill.

That seems like a rather lax standard, and one that would give a pass to practically any arresting officer who could plausibly claim to have believed that the suspect had attempted or committed a felony offense.

LaDoris Hazzard Cordell wants more restrictions on the use of force:

First, police departments must broaden the definition of reasonable use of force. In 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor defined the reasonable use of force as force “judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.” That definition has been interpreted narrowly by law enforcement agencies across the country to mean that the reasonableness of the force is limited to an examination of only the amount of force used in the moment. The conduct of officers right before the use of force is never examined. Under this definition, officers who provoke individuals and officers who escalate situations get a pass.

The definition of what constitutes the reasonable use of force must be expanded to include the circumstances leading up to the use of force, so that the inquiry into the misconduct sweeps in whatever the officer did prior to the decision to  use force, along with the conduct of the victim.

Max Ehrenfreund considers what Obama should do:

Thursday, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) proposed a bill that would prohibit the Pentagon from transferring some military-grade equipment under this program. Obama doesn’t have to wait for Congress, though. In the meantime, he has at least two options: instruct the Pentagon to to keep more of its armored vehicles and automatic weapons to itself, and require applicants for Homeland Security grant money to report more precisely how they use the funds.

But Waldman expects such steps to have a relatively minor impact:

The militarization of the country’s police forces is something that has been growing for a couple of decades, fueled first by the War on Drugs and then by the insane idea that the police in every hamlet in every corner of the country needed to be able to wage battles against Al Qaeda strike teams. Congress could turn off the spigot that pours this equipment into these communities, but unless the federal government starts repossessing the equipment it already distributed (highly unlikely, to say the least), police departments all over the country will still be awash in military gear.

And that’s the biggest challenge: the problems the Ferguson case highlights are widely distributed, through thousands of police departments and millions of interaction between cops and citizens. The federal government can respond in a limited way to what we’ve all seen, but its actions will go only so far.