Here are a couple of sobering statistics from The Brookings Institution: A Black person is killed about every 40 hours by police, and Black people are 3.5 times more likely than white people to be killed by police when they are not attacking or do not have a weapon.
The research also shows that, typically, police officers aren’t charged in these killings of unarmed Black people, and even when they are, they are almost never convicted.
As the linked report notes,
In policing, people often talk about bad apples. Well, bad apples come from rotten trees, and the rotten trees are law enforcement agencies imbued with structural racism. Standard processes for holding police officers accountable, issuing civil payouts to victims of brutality, and rehiring fired officers are a few of the factors that contribute to the entrenchment of racism and police brutality.
The report outlines some of the reasons for the lack of accountability, and makes two recommendations for improvement. The first recommendation is–or should be–obvious: don’t rehire–or shuffle around– officers who have been fired for misconduct. Those officers should not be able to work in law enforcement again.
This recommendation is receiving bipartisan support at the federal level. It is part of Trump’s recent Executive Order and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that passed in the House of Representatives.
The second recommendation is one I hadn’t previously encountered, and as a former Corporation Counsel who supervised these payments, I can tell you that it makes a lot of sense. It involves the restructuring of compensatory payments. Currently, when a lawsuit is brought alleging misconduct by police, and that lawsuit is either won by the plaintiff or settled, payment of damages comes from the general funds of the city. Brookings advocates moving the source of payment from taxpayer money to police department insurance policies.
We aren’t talking about insignificant funds. As Brookings reports,
Eventually, there will be a large civil payout for the death of George Floyd. The Floyd family’s taxpayer money will be used to pay them for his dehumanization and killing. Due to qualified immunity—the legislation that often prevents officers from facing civil culpability—officers are typically immune from the financial impacts of these civil payouts. Since 2010, St. Louis has paid over $33 million and Baltimore was found liable for about $50 million for police misconduct. Over the past 20 years, Chicago spent over $650 million on police misconduct cases. In one year from period from July 2017 through June 2018, New York City paid out $230 million in about 6,500 misconduct cases. What if this money was used for education and work infrastructure? Research suggests that crime would decrease.
The report cites parallels: In health care, for example, physicians and hospitals carry malpractice insurance. Even if the city uses taxpayer funds to cover the police department’s malpractice insurance premium, there are real benefits to this approach; for one thing, if the city’s malpractice premium goes up, the city will get valuable information about which police officers, like which physicians and which hospitals, are responsible.
These proposals merit consideration. Another big step forward would be the amendment or elimination of the doctrine of qualified immunity, which I wrote about last month.
Thanks to the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, well-meaning Americans can no longer tell themselves that all police officers are “good guys” and anyone reporting brutality or other lawless behavior must have deserved it. We’ve seen too much. On the other hand, it is really important that we restore respect for law enforcement, and for the officers who are following the rules and doing a dangerous job in order to keep communities safe. We won’t restore that respect and encourage co-operation with law enforcement until there are structural changes that remove the “safe harbors” exploited by the bad apples who undeniably exist.
These approaches are worth considering–as are the suggestions for relieving police of duties more logically discharged by social workers and/or medical personnel. (Whoever decided to label that proposed shift of responsibilities “defunding police” should be banned from engaging in any policy debate ever again…)