This post first appeared in August 2019 as the NMA E-Newsletter #502.
Society has trouble talking about police misconduct in any meaningful way. If we question police actions, it looks as if we don’t support them. In reality, most of us do support the brave men and women who put themselves on the line every day for our safety. When traffic stops are the most common daily interface between law enforcement and the public, and charges of abuse stem from some of those interactions, overall police behavior is very much a motorists’ issue.
One of the best checks and balances against abusive behaviors or policies by public institutions is transparency. Often however it is a difficult commodity to come by.
California, for example, currently has the strictest state laws when it comes to protecting police confidentiality. Apparently this occurred in the 1970s after Los Angeles police officers shredded personnel records dating to the 1940s in order to avoid over 100 cases of police misconduct. Due to pressure from the police union, state lawmakers then passed a law that ensured officer discipline records would be preserved, while at the same time making it impossible for anyone outside of the chain of command to access them.
California lawmakers now are wrestling with a landmark effort to ease record disclosure regulations. They continue to run into fierce opposition from police unions. Legislators have countered by stating that police are out of touch with public sentiment over how officers use profiling techniques and force.
Public disclosure of police misconduct is just one basic element of oversight and is the law in many states. The problem in California is that its privacy laws for disclosure are also those that keep necessary information from prosecutors who must disclose any relevant information to the defense about officers in a court case. This could have serious repercussions as recently seen this summer in Los Angeles and Orange Counties which have been rocked with false testimony scandals of sheriff’s deputies. This could result in hundreds of cases retried or dismissed.
Retrying cases due to police misconduct and victims of misconduct winning civil cases against police departments is expensive. Already this year, Chicago taxpayers have paid out $50 million to victims of such actions. Small towns that are sued sometimes lose their insurance and/or have to shut down their police departments entirely.
Citizen groups across the country are now taking action in asking for more police transparency.
In Nashville, Tennessee, a group called Community Oversight Now has had its petition certified by the Davidson County Election Committee that would allow a November referendum vote on the creation of a new civilian-led board giving the authority to review the actions of police. The local police union plans to sue to stop the referendum in court. Mayor David Briley supports the concept and vows to create a civilian oversight board by executive order if the referendum does not pass.
A statewide Virginia coalition of community activists is calling for more police accountability in Richmond and has sought, through the Freedom of Information Act, data on the city’s ‘stop and frisk’ program. The New Virginia Majority have been told that the department could not provide the data since the information has never been collected in a meaningful way. Police in Chesterfield and Henrico counties recently provided similar responses. Last year, the group was successful in petitioning the Richmond PD to provide its use-of-force and complaint data online.
As community groups demand more police transparency and protection of constitutional rights, there could well be more pushback from police unions and departments.
To do the difficult job that society has tasked them with, law enforcement agencies need to be morally, legally and culturally bound to report bad behavior. Reporting misconduct and brutality should never be an exception to the rule.
If the true cost of police misconduct were better understood, reform would be more readily accomplished to the benefit of the people as well as to the vast majority of law enforcement officers who discharge their duties with honor and respect.