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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Ending the culture of police impunity: A modest proposal

by John MacBeath Watkins

Police have got to lose their feeling that they can hurt people with impunity, and the way to do that is to change how they are paid.

Any time armed men think they can break the law with impunity, they are a threat to civilization. It's my belief that a small number of police are resulting in huge settlements for their employers, and police departments are remarkably inept at rooting them out.

The city of Chicago has agreed to pay out $5.5 million because a group of police allegedly routinely tortured prisoners -- mainly poor black ones -- in the 1970s and '80s. The city of Baltimore has paid out even more over the last few years for police brutality settlements. We need to give police incentives that will change their behavior.

The police unions do their best to make sure the officers involved in most cases of police brutality, even those that prove expensive for the cities that employ them, are not fired. Police officers often try to cover up the behavior of their fellow cops.

We need to change the incentives. The Chicago police department's alleged torture happened between 1972 and 1991. It could not happen for nearly two decades without the knowledge police outside of the "midnight crew" said to have done this.

Cops cover for each other. We know this. In the Tamir Rice case, two cops were in the car that responded to the call, one of them shot almost immediately, and before they found out there was video of the incident, they told a story about the incident that did not match the vid that finally surfaced.

Now a prosecutor who works closely with the police must decide whether one of the cops committed a crime in shooting Rice, and whether the other committed a crime covering for him. The prosecutor has got to feel conflicted.

On the whole, things are stacked in favor of the cops in these events, which is why the midnight crew got away with torture for nearly two decades. The ubiquity of cell phone videos has revealed much about how police behave that we would not have known in the past. What should we do about it?

Punishment is one option, and when police commit crimes, they should be subject to the law like anyone else. But until we can make real changes in police culture, we're not going to fix the problem.

I suggest an incentive system that would change the way police behave. Establish a compensation fund, and what doesn't get paid out in settlements for police brutality can be released as a stipend to police. Anyone whose behavior causes a settlement or who covers up behavior that causes a settlement loses the stipend. The amount of everyone's stipend is reduced when the fund is run down by a settlement.

I think cops know who the bad apples are. There are social pressures to cover for them, an us-against-them attitude to all non-police, in most departments. Police unions have no incentive to try to weed them out, because they have no skin in the game when it comes to settlements. Their members misbehave, someone else pays. In the future, police contracts need to give the cops and their union some skin in the game.

Once, I interviewed a Native man who had been a bonded deputy of Island County. He put up a bond, I don't recall how large, and he'd lose it if he did something that resulted in the county having to pay out because of his behavior. I don't know what happened to this custom, but it seems to me that it was a good one.

One consequence of the ubiquity of video is that more cases are going to go against the police, and cities are going to have to pay out more money. It is quite reasonable to make police pay depend, in part, on whether they break the law and on whether they behave in ways that are expensive for their employers.


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