We need police accountability and oversight

Posted on 03 June 2020

Any opinions I express here on my blog or any personal social media accounts are my independent thoughts, and do not represent or constitute the official views of any organization or company I am affiliated with.

I want to start out by saying I do appreciate the work that the police officers of this nation who do work tirelessly to make their community a better place. To the police officers who embody the values of “protect and serve”, who practice uplifting community policing, and uphold and respect the rights listed in the constitution, even when inconvenient, I see you and thank you. And I truly do mean that. Some might call me naïve, but I do believe the majority of cops did become officers for good reasons. I do acknowledge I am privileged to be able to make that assumption, and it may not be the right one.

That being said, we can’t ignore the fact that we do have a huge problem. Over the past few weeks, this problem has become more apparent ever, but make no mistake, it has always been here, and the public is just now recognizing it because the ubiquity of cameras in everyone’s pocket. It is still no excuse for why we haven’t had reform until (hopefully? now). The problem is police misconduct, which members of marginalized black communities make up a disproportionate number of victims, and importantly, the lack of accountability for these abhorrent instances of misconduct.

This is about more than George Floyd, who was murdered at the hands of an officer who was only brought into custody after massive public outrage. He is just the latest in a long line of people who have been mistreated, beaten, and killed. But let’s start with him. I know many people have seen clips or screenshots of this video, but as disturbing as the video is, I encourage you to watch the full thing if you have not. It may be uncomfortable, but it is reality.

I hope we can all see why the murderer, with his hands in his pockets and not a care in the world, is in the wrong here. This post is about accountability, and the lack thereof. So I want to talk about the other officers at the scene. There are so many things they should’ve done, but they remained complicit and enabling of the situation. Why didn’t they check up on Mr. Floyd? Why didn’t they intervene when it was obvious something was wrong? If the victim calling out “I can’t breathe” isn’t enough for them, how could they not at least check up on what’s happening when a huge crowd of bystanders is pleading with them about how Mr. Floyd is dying? When it was evident Derek Chauvin had killed him, why didn’t the other officers on the scene arrest him immediately? At the very least, they could call their supervisor out to do it. After all, their job is to enforce the law, and I’m pretty sure killing someone isn’t legal. How is someone being choked out in front of you not enough probable cause? Are cops exempt from the very laws they seek to enforce? For the 8+ minutes Chauvin had his knee on top of Floyd, the other cops present didn’t have a very chaotic scene to deal with; they’d have to be blind to not be able to see how Chauvin was in the wrong, especially after he was carted off in an ambulance.

Charges were filed for Chauvin after 3 days of protesting and rioting. If nobody had shared this video, would he still be a free man, and a police officer with power to do it again? While we’ll never know for sure, without public activism and scrutiny, the people who are trusted to arrest him are his colleagues. Given their behavior at the scene, do you think it would have been reported and investigated, or swept under the rug?

Turning our attention to the protests in the days that followed, we have many seen many cases of police instigating violence unprovoked and wrongful arrests. I’ll acknowledge that a few departments have taken action against these officers, such as Atlanta’s police department, but it seems to be the exception rather the norm. Speaking of norms, since the videos are from protests with lots of officers next to each other, why is it the norm for officers to not do anything when one of their colleagues is engaging in unlawful behavior right in front of them? We are seeing these videos at a time where every action of the police is under scrutiny and on camera. If this is their behavior now, what are they getting away with when nobody is watching?

Watch this video:

That’s about as respectful of a protest that’s possible, with him making an emotional plea: “I love each and every one of you. I want to understand all of you. I want to. I would love to see the best side of everyone here.” What happened to first amendment rights? Clearly we didn’t see the best side of Charleston cops here.

Charleston police chief Luther Reynolds’ response? “obey the police or expect to get arrested…You can make a choice one or the other. Some people obeyed. They weren’t arrested. Those that chose not to obey, they were arrested, many of them.” I’m sorry, what? I thought this was America, land of the free. The police are not there to give orders, they are there to uphold the constitution and enforce the law. Demanding orders from police be followed is eerily reminiscent of a fascist regime.

Referring to the incident specifically, Charleston PD said “We specifically asked for them, numerous times, to disperse,” he said. “We said if you don’t you will be arrested.” During the full two minutes, I certainly didn’t see anybody being asked to move, and this whole thing reminds me of what has happened to the protestors of Hong Kong in the past year. Besides, the police claimed they were asked to disperse because of the curfew but Givionne “Gee” Jordan Jr. (the guy giving the speech who got arrested) said he was arrested around 5PM, an hour before the curfew of 6PM.

Furthermore, even if this was a legitimate reason, why was Gee singled out and arrested?

We all know why. He was the one giving the speech, and the arrest was a way to silence him. Watch this video:

We can hear the crew talking to police calmly and asking where they would like the group to be, and then they arrest the reporter. Their reason? “Police told the crew they were being detained because they were told to move and didn't, one member of the CNN crew relayed to the network.” Give me a break. In case the audio wasn’t clear, I’ll leave what he was telling the police here in text form: “We can move back to where you like. We are live on the air here. ... Put us back where you want us. We are getting out of your way -- wherever you want us (we'll) get out of your way”.

So far, I haven’t heard about any consequences for the officers that arrested him, why is that?

Here’s another example:

Let’s call this what this is: assault (There is no criminal battery in New York). This officer’s actions are being “investigated”, but why wasn’t he stopped and arrested by other cops at the scene? After all, if some random person did that to someone in front of a cop, they should expect to be arrested and charged.

Two more videos, from LA:

And here’s one unfortunately from my home state:

Remember when you were a kid, and you hurt someone like your sibling, so you start comforting them and help them so you wouldn’t get in trouble? Doesn’t make the original action ok.

These videos are just a few of the many incidents of police brutality that happened within the span of 3 days.

Let me address the dumbass “rioters are being violent and breaking laws during these protests too” argument right now. First of all, maybe try and understand why anger has flared to this point. The black community has watched members of their community be killed for years, with nothing seeming to change. While I will say destroying one’s own community may not be the most productive way to enact change, take a look at injustices black Americans have experienced throughout all of American history and through now, and it’s not hard to understand why things might be going the way they are. But to bring it back to police accountability, we expect law enforcement officers to follow the law because they are the ones we entrust to enforce the law. It should be obvious why it’s a big deal when they not only break the law, they use their position of power to do so. It’s authoritarian, un-American, and despicable.

I’d also like to bring up the case of Breonna Taylor, another recent tragic case. From the NYTimes:

Shortly after midnight on March 13, Louisville police, executing a search warrant, used a battering ram to crash into the apartment of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American emergency room technician. After a brief confrontation, they fired several shots, striking her at least eight times.

According to The Louisville Courier Journal, the police were investigating two men who they believed were selling drugs out of a house that was far from Ms. Taylor’s home. But a judge had also signed a warrant allowing the police to search Ms. Taylor’s residence because the police said they believed that one of the two men had used her apartment to receive packages. The judge’s order was a so-called “no-knock” warrant, which allowed the police to enter without warning or without identifying themselves as law enforcement.

In a 911 call just after the shots were fired, Mr. Walker told a dispatcher that “somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend,” according to a recording released this week.

Ms. Taylor’s family also said it was outrageous that the police felt it necessary to conduct the raid in the middle of the night. Their lawyers say police had already located the main suspect in the investigation by the time they burst into the apartment. But they “then proceeded to spray gunfire into the residence with a total disregard for the value of human life,” according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Ms. Taylor’s mother.

There was no body camera footage from the raid.

I hope I’ve at least convinced you now that we desperately need oversight and accountability for our law enforcement officers, and that this cannot continue. Police brutality is a very real problem, and one which keeps marginalized black communities oppressed. I’ll admit I will never be able to understand what it is like being black in America; from the explicit racism to the relentless microaggressions, there is nothing I can do but listen and seek to understand as much as I possibly can. My main goal was to show you the problem, and I hope you’ll use these scenes to guide your opinions, donations, and votes. Now if you feel like sticking around, I’ll explain some of my thoughts on how we should approach solving this.

Abuse of police power should be a federal crime, and there should be an independent police oversight body in the federal government that investigates all reports of police misconduct. Perhaps a division or task force of the FBI, with no conflicts of interest with local police departments. Speaking of which, federal agents would need a different, but similar oversight mechanism. No more departments “investigating” themselves, which was a crazy conflict of interest. If any officer hears about any occurrence of excess force or unjustified arrest, they are required to report it, regardless of how credible they think their source is. The federal investigative body will follow up with every report and determine the credibility and possible legal action.

Police officers should also be mandated to arrest any other officer they see breaking the law, including using unnecessary force. Failure to do so should result in criminal consequences.

In addition, every officer must have a body cam while on duty and this footage gets automatically uploaded to servers hosted by the federal police oversight body. In addition to providing evidence in any police brutality cases, there should be random audits of footage to keep officer accountable. Attempting to disable or tamper with these body cams should immediate result in losing their job, and if the event is associated with an abuse of power case, this could be considered criminal evidence tampering.

De-escalation policies such as those on 8Can'tWait should definitely be a staple in every police department.

There’s been a big push to defund police departments lately. While many police departments are over funded and over militarized which should definitely warrant (ha, get it) a review of their budget, I think defunding departments as a knee-jerk retaliation for these recent cases of police brutality may be short sighted. Police departments should allocate a lot more of their budget into oversight mechanisms and de-escalation training, which are an investment. The last thing we need is city councils cutting funding for police departments hamstringing their ability to foot the implementation costs of safeguards, training, and investments into community policing. Rather than cut police budgets (unless they were excessive in the first place), cities should instead appropriate chunks of the police budget specifically for programs to make the police better, and prevent the tragedies which are all too common.

As mentioned before, some cities do have wildly inflated police budgets though. In those cases, money should be taken from the police deparment and shifted into solving root causes. There should be establishment of mental health and addiction resources, as well as reform of the prison system to actually empower people to change, rather than blindly punish. While I don't agree with fully abolishing police departments, as some recent activists have pushed for, I think the focal point of crime reduction should be through social work and getting resources into the hands of people who need them, not violent policing. It will be interesting to see what Minneapolis abolishing their police department will look like. While I think they will eventually have to end up establishing something that's basically a police department under a different name (although hopefully managed by competent, empathetic people this time), I would love to be proven wrong and see a city that can truly abolish their police department on a practical level. Perhaps they will be a case study of sorts other cities can look to.

Thanks for reading, and I always welcome discussion on any of my views.

I'll also suggest reading Confessions of a former bastard cop.

Lastly, if you have the means to do so, I'd encourage you to donate to any of the following organizations: