by Antonio Romanucci
There can be little doubt that police misconduct has been a major attention-grabber across the country as of late. With its prominence in the news and social media, many national and local debates have been sparked on the issue. Some participants in this discussion, who believe misconduct is on the rise, call for better accountability within police departments, better reporting of misconduct, or for more drastic measures such as disbanding whole departments. However, the first question to answer is whether incidents of police misconduct are on the rise at all. According to at least one expert, it is only the reporting of police misconduct that is on the rise; the rate of incidents has stayed the same.[i] This is an interesting take on the debate, and if it is indeed correct, it is because the awareness of police misconduct, especially the use of illegal and excessive force, has been brought to the forefront of our attention with technology.
Much has changed since earlier days when the Rodney King police beating was captured on video.[ii] Today, nearly every citizen has the ability to be a movie editor with a high-resolution smart phone. With a few swipes on a glass screen, every minute of every encounter can be catalogued and stored within the space of a few square inches. An incident of police brutality can be instantly posted on social media for anyone with a wi-fi connection to watch. Information spreads like wildfire, and this is especially true for news stories and viral videos showing police officers behaving poorly.
In addition to recent social support for citizens keeping their cameras rolling on police officers, the public has also found support from the courts. Indeed, until recently, there existed a statute in Illinois, commonly called the Eavesdropping Statute, which made it a felony offense for a private citizen to make audio recordings of their encounters with police officers.[iii] Understandably so, there were several constitutional challenges raised to this statute, and it was struck down.[iv]
Living in Chicago, I am keenly aware that nearly every corner in the congested parts of the city are being monitored by a camera owned, controlled and/or managed by the city and its police department. In the instances were a police camera is not available, the police have quick and easy access to other surveillance cameras, such as those at gas stations or parking garages. Despite the proliferation of cell phone cameras, dash cams and cameras looming over our city street, the critical question remains: why do police officers continue to brutalize innocent citizens?
The answer, in this author’s opinion, is simple: Culture.
Police officers have instilled in their DNA that it is an “us against them” world, that all suspects are guilty before convicted, that the citizenry hates suspected criminals, and that certain racial and ethnic populations belong to a different social class in society. In fact, it was routine in my days as a young public defender for anyone connected to law enforcement to refer to suspects, arrestees, detainees and convicts as “dogs.” No one had names, no one had a designation, but they sure did have their nickname. Now, it seems that this idea has spread beyond the confines of the jailhouse and out onto our streets.
I am not suggesting that individuals are born of the mentality that people are dogs. I certainly am suggesting, however, that young police recruits are taught this mindset upon entering the police academy.
There is no doubt that police officers and other first responders play an important, critical role in the safeguarding of our nation and its streets. All citizens should respect their sense of duty, their commitment to the public, and the risks they take every day when they put on a uniform. However, we also live in a nation where all free citizens are guaranteed constitutional protection, and a police officer’s duty must not infringe upon those guaranties. Indeed, officers are guaranteed and undoubtedly assert the same constitutional rights as everyday citizens. Therefore, the respect should be mutual.
By the way of illustration to highlight this sense of culture and the “us against them” mentality, I would like to discuss a recent case that screams constitutional and civil rights violations from the beginning.
RW was 22 years old, African American, and unemployed. One January afternoon, RW was standing at a bus stop simply waiting for the bus to arrive. Commander GE, second in command under the Chief of Police, was on patrol that day. He is known and praised by the Chief for his aggressive crime-fighting tactics. Unknown to the public, this commander is so aggressive that he has accumulated over fifty citizens’ complaints in his 26-year career. Commander GE sees RW at the bus stop and pegs him as a bad guy instantly. GE sits in his police cruiser while he eyeballs RW for several minutes. RW had committed no crime and was not doing anything more than standing, waiting for a bus. Despite his innocence, RW knows what’s coming next. RW runs away. GE and his team chase RW into an abandoned house and corner him. GE and his gang begin screaming at RW to tell them where “the guns” are. RW is not armed. Unhappy with RW’ answer, GE draws his gun and shoves it down RW’ mouth into his throat. He places his Taser into RW’s groin and threatens to kill RW while RW is being held down by other officers. RW insists on his innocence. The threats of jail time and violence continue. Finally, the officers stop torturing RW and arrest RW for disorderly conduct.
The following day RW and his mom filed a complaint with the independent board charged with reviewing police officer complaints. They swabbed the barrel of GE’s gun and, after analysis by the state police, a DNA match was found between DNA on the barrel of the gun and RW’s DNA. Eventually, GE is charged criminally for this misconduct. It is only upon the bringing of formal criminal charges that he is stripped of his police powers. His criminal case remains pending.
Without falling into the trap of assuming guilt before the appropriate time, let’s assume for a moment that RW’s allegations against GE are true. What’s more disturbing than the actual misconduct is that GE was second in command in the department. GE was an entrusted deputy of the Chief, was supposed to be the example for the rank and file of the department, and was the person who new officers were learning police culture from.
There is another question that begs to be answered if the above allegations are true. How prevalent and deeply rooted are police violations of the Constitution when excessive abuses of force are promulgated from the top down?
As a parent, employer, teacher, or anyone in a position of authority, we would never think to knowingly break the law as an example of acceptable behavior. This blatant breech is a violation of the highest trust possible, breeds lawlessness, and discourages cooperation between the police and community.
Where and how do we fix the problem? There is no easy solution, especially in a decentralized nation such as the United States. There can be frameworks and ideas, and this author’s plan would be as follows:
1) Police officers should be mandated to wear personal cameras.
2) The cameras must be verified as working properly prior to every shift to ensure full operation.
3) An officer should be mandated to turn on his personal camera prior to every and any citizen encounter involving probable cause for arrest, where a crime has been committed, during any investigatory stop or investigation, and even during traffic stops.
4) The camera must be tamper-proof so that only an authorized supervisor may access the data.
5) The data must be preserved for a minimum period of 30 days.
6) When a camera is found to be intentionally not activated, the presumptive interference must be that the video evidence would have been favorable to the victim making the claim.
7) A program to continue to develop community trust and relations with the local law enforcement agencies must be developed and, of course, followed.
All things being considered this would be a giant first step in minimizing greatly the incidences of police misconduct involving brutality and excessive force. Police body-mounted cameras, with the right policies in place, would strike a proper balance between protecting the vulnerable citizens subjected to police misconduct while also staying within constitutional parameters.[v]
[i] Kesling, Ben and Peters, Mark. Teen’s Shooting Highlights Racial Tension. The Wall Street Journal. 12 August 2014. Online: http://online.wsj.com/articles/police-protect-identity-of-officer-involved-in-missouri-teens-shooting-1407861679.
[ii] John V. Jacobi, Prosecuting Police Misconduct, 2000 Wis. L. Rev. 789, 792 (2000).
[iii] 720 ILCS 5/14-2.
[v] Stanley, Jay, Police Body-Mounted Cameras: With Right Policies in Place, a Win For All. ACLU. 9 October 2013. Online: https://www.aclu.org/technology-and-liberty/police-body-mounted-cameras-right-policies-place-win-all.