A series of killings of Black Americans, from George Floyd to Breonna Taylor to Rayshard Brooks, has reinforced the fact that an American police badge too often acts as a shield against accountability for abuses large and small. Considering that police have life and death power over the public they are sworn to protect and serve, we have the right to expect public accountability to ensure that we can protect ourselves, as well.
States and cities around the country have been passing laws to make police disciplinary histories available to the public. So, not surprisingly, the federal government is now looking at its role.
States and cities around the country have been passing laws to make police disciplinary histories available to the public. So, not surprisingly, the federal government is now looking at its role. Last week, President Donald Trump issued an executive order on policing, ostensibly focused on "reform." And Wednesday, Senate Democrats blocked a police bill written by Republicans and, at least initially, supported by Trump.
The GOP's offering would not outright ban dangerous chokeholds or "no-knock" warrants like the one that led to the death of Taylor, and — critically — it would not really address police secrecy statutes or qualified immunity laws.
Republicans, it seems, are still not getting serious about police accountability. Certainly, Trump's administration has shown over and over that it does not actually care about reform. Indeed, Trump spent most of his speech last week praising police and reinforcing the importance of law and order even as the public has witnessed video after video of excessive police force, including the aggressive clearing of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., to accommodate Trump's Bible photograph.
Democrats and Republicans agree that police misconduct should be better tracked. But agreement appears to end there. The Republicans' bill is timid compared to House and Senate Democrats' much more aggressive efforts to make it easier to charge officers with crimes for excessive force and to sue officers in civil court for bad acts. This matters because states may follow the federal lead on what constitutes accountability in the first place.
That aside, everyone seems to agree that a police officer who has done wrong and is fired should not be able to get a job as a police officer somewhere else. This is not surprising. As protesters poured into the streets of cities large and small demanding meaningful reforms, this idea of accountability has become incredibly important. Lifting the veil of secrecy that shrouds police misconduct allegations would seem like an obvious democratic value. After all, if police work for the people, should they not be answerable to the people, as well? This is a basic tenet of good government.
And studies show that secrecy is the norm. Research further suggests that the more complaints an officer accrues, the more likely he or she is to be accused later of wrongdoing in civil rights cases. Complaints against police officers must be available to the public, including what they alleged, whether wrongdoing was found and what, if any, discipline was imposed. Public accountability, trust and fairness require it.
The Atlanta police officer who shot and killed Brooks, 27, outside a Wendy's was charged last week with felony murder. Newly released records show that the officer, Garrett Rolfe, had several civilian complaints against him, including a use-of-force complaint. Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, who sadistically kept his knee on George Floyd's neck for almost eight minutes, had 17 misconduct complaints filed against him, almost all of which resulted in no discipline.
Chauvin was accused of drawing a gun on a group of young white men after a Nerf dart went astray. The young man who filed the complaint never learned whether the Minneapolis Police Department disciplined Chauvin. If he had been disciplined and eventually terminated as a repeat offender, perhaps Floyd would still be alive to raise his 6-year-old daughter.
The hypocrisy of a policing system that would torture Floyd for possibly having passed a counterfeit $20 bill but not terminate an officer with a dangerous disciplinary history has not been lost on the public. Eric Garner, whose death also propelled protests, was killed in 2014 by a New York City police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, who had seven complaints. Garner lost his life for allegedly having sold untaxed cigarettes.
Police discipline certainly does occur; it just does not often lead to change. Eighty-five thousand police officers have been investigated or disciplined in the last decade, according to extensive research conducted by USA Today. Tens of thousands of investigations were for allegations of serious misconduct, including excessive force. They also included allegations of rape, child molestation and domestic violence. And in thousands of instances, officers are accused of having lied about it. As many as 2,500 police officers had 10 or more complaints against them in their careers, according to USA Today's analysis.
Tracking and sharing misconduct data would help. This assumes that states and local governments are tracking and saving that information so it can be captured in a national database. Just how widespread is the problem of secrecy and failure to discipline? Until fairly recently, 23 states kept police discipline records in a proverbial black box. Fifteen more kept some records confidential. That has been changing in recent years. Until 2018, California had been among the states with the most extreme versions of secrecy laws. New York also had been, until it repealed its secrecy statute amid demonstrations over Floyd's killing, despite lawmakers' making it tougher to discipline violent officers by making the issue of discipline one to be negotiated in collective bargaining with unions.
The activism and advocacy of ordinary people of all races and ages are creating momentum to repeal secrecy laws.
The activism and advocacy of ordinary people of all races and ages are creating momentum to repeal secrecy laws. This, however, will not solve the problem. The power of police unions continues to be a problem, as well.
In an examination of police union contracts in 86 large cities, Reuters found what it called "a pattern of protection" of police members the likes of which ordinary people could never expect on the job. A majority erased disciplinary files after some period, like San Antonio. Other studies have shown that union contracts create processes well beyond recognized due process protections, including allowing officers to appeal three and even four times. One study found that 88 percent of police union contracts had at least one provision that could undermine legitimate disciplinary action.
We must have fair labor conditions for all workers, including police officers, but that cannot come at the price of democratic oversight and public safety. Who knows how many lives would have been saved if police departments took complaints seriously? It is literally the very least these departments and officials could do — and it's still not good enough.