In a Cop Culture, the Bill of Rights Doesn’t Amount to Much
By John W. Whitehead
Police officers are more likely to be struck by lightning than be held financially accountable for their actions.—Law professor Joanna C. Schwartz (paraphrased)
“In a democratic society,” observed Oakland police chief Sean Whent, “people have a say in how they are policed.”
Unfortunately, if you can be kicked, punched, tasered, shot, intimidated, harassed, stripped, searched, brutalized, terrorized, wrongfully arrested, and even killed by a police officer, and that officer is never held accountable for violating your rights and his oath of office to serve and protect, never forced to make amends, never told that what he did was wrong, and never made to change his modus operandi, then you don’t live in a constitutional republic.
You live in a police state.
It doesn’t even matter that “crime is at historic lows and most cities are safer than they have been in generations, for residents and officers alike,” as the New York Times reports.
What matters is whether you’re going to make it through a police confrontation alive and with your health and freedoms intact. For a growing number of Americans, those confrontations do not end well.
As David O. Brown, the Dallas chief of police, noted: “Sometimes it seems like our young officers want to get into an athletic event with people they want to arrest. They have a ‘don’t retreat’ mentality. They feel like they’re warriors and they can’t back down when someone is running from them, no matter how minor the underlying crime is.”
Making matters worse, in the cop culture that is America today, the Bill of Rights doesn’t amount to much. Unless, that is, it’s the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBoR), which protects police officers from being subjected to the kinds of debilitating indignities heaped upon the average citizen.
Most Americans, oblivious about their own rights, aren’t even aware that police officers have their own Bill of Rights. Yet at the same time that our own protections against government abuses have been reduced to little more than historic window dressing, 14 states have already adopted LEOBoRs—written by police unions and being considered by many more states and Congress—which provides police officers accused of a crime with special due process rights and privileges not afforded to the average citizen.
In other words, the LEOBoR protects police officers from being treated as we are treated during criminal investigations: questioned unmercifully for hours on end, harassed, harangued, browbeaten, denied food, water and bathroom breaks, subjected to hostile interrogations, and left in the dark about our accusers and any charges and evidence against us.
Not only are officers given a 10-day “cooling-off period” during which they cannot be forced to make any statements about the incident, but when they are questioned, it must be “for a reasonable length of time, at a reasonable hour, by only one or two investigators (who must be fellow policemen), and with plenty of breaks for food and water.”
According to investigative journalist Eli Hager, the most common rights afforded police officers accused of wrongdoing are as follows:
•If a department decides to pursue a complaint against an officer, the department must notify the officer and his union.
•The officer must be informed of the complainants, and their testimony against him, before he is questioned.
•During questioning, investigators may not harass, threaten, or promise rewards to the officer, as interrogators not infrequently do to civilian suspects.
•Bathroom breaks are assured during questioning.
•In Maryland, the officer may appeal his case to a “hearing board,” whose decision is binding, before a final decision has been made by his superiors about his discipline. The hearing board consists of three of the suspected offender’s fellow officers.
•In some jurisdictions, the officer may not be disciplined if more than a certain number of days (often 100) have passed since his alleged misconduct, which limits the time for investigation.
•Even if the officer is suspended, the department must continue to pay salary and benefits, as well as the cost of the officer’s attorney.
It’s a pretty sweet deal if you can get it, I suppose: protection from the courts, immunity from wrongdoing, paid leave while you’re under investigation, and the assurance that you won’t have to spend a dime of your own money in your defense. And yet these LEOBoR epitomize everything that is wrong with America today.
Once in a while, the system appears to work on the side of justice, and police officers engaged in wrongdoing are actually charged for abusing their authority and using excessive force against American citizens.
Yet even in these instances, it’s still the American taxpayer who foots the bill.
For example, Baltimore taxpayers have paid roughly $5.7 million since 2011 over lawsuits stemming from police abuses, with an additional $5.8 million going towards legal fees. If the six Baltimore police officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray are convicted, you can rest assured it will be the Baltimore taxpayers who feel the pinch.
New York taxpayers have shelled out almost $1,130 per year per police officer (there are 34,500 officers in the NYPD) to address charges of misconduct. That translates to $38 million every year just to clean up after these so-called public servants.
Over a 10-year-period, Oakland, Calif., taxpayers were made to cough up more than $57 million (curiously enough, the same amount as the city’s deficit back in 2011) in order to settle accounts with alleged victims of police abuse.
Chicago taxpayers were asked to pay out nearly $33 million on one day alone to victims of police misconduct, with one person slated to receive $22.5 million, potentially the largest single amount settled on any one victim. The City has paid more than half a billion dollars to victims over the course of a decade. The Chicago City Council actually had to borrow $100 million just to pay off lawsuits arising over police misconduct in 2013. The city’s payout for 2014 was estimated to be in the same ballpark, especially with cases pending such as the one involving the man who was reportedly sodomized by a police officer’s gun in order to force him to “cooperate.”
Over 78% of the funds paid out by Denver taxpayers over the course of a decade arose as a result of alleged abuse or excessive use of force by the Denver police and sheriff departments. Meanwhile, taxpayers in Ferguson, Missouri, are being asked to pay $40 million in compensation—more than the city’s entire budget—for police officers treating them “‘as if they were war combatants,’ using tactics like beating, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and stun grenades, while the plaintiffs were peacefully protesting, sitting in a McDonalds, and in one case walking down the street to visit relatives.”
That’s just a small sampling of the most egregious payouts, but just about every community—large and small—feels the pinch when it comes to compensating victims who have been subjected to deadly or excessive force by police.
The ones who rarely ever feel the pinch are the officers accused or convicted of wrongdoing, “even if they are disciplined or terminated by their department, criminally prosecuted, or even imprisoned.” Indeed, a study published in the NYU Law Review reveals that 99.8% of the monies paid in settlements and judgments in police misconduct cases never come out of the officers’ own pockets, even when state laws require them to be held liable. Moreover, these officers rarely ever have to pay for their own legal defense.
For instance, law professor Joanna C. Schwartz references a case in which three Denver police officers chased and then beat a 16-year-old boy, stomping “on the boy’s back while using a fence for leverage, breaking his ribs and causing him to suffer kidney damage and a lacerated liver.” The cost to Denver taxpayers to settle the lawsuit: $885,000. The amount the officers contributed: 0.
Kathryn Johnston, 92 years old, was shot and killed during a SWAT team raid that went awry. Attempting to cover their backs, the officers falsely claimed Johnston’s home was the site of a cocaine sale and went so far as to plant marijuana in the house to support their claim. The cost to Atlanta taxpayers to settle the lawsuit: $4.9 million. The amount the officers contributed: 0.
Meanwhile, in Albuquerque, a police officer was convicted of raping a woman in his police car, in addition to sexually assaulting four other women and girls, physically abusing two additional women, and kidnapping or falsely imprisoning five men and boys. The cost to the Albuquerque taxpayers to settle the lawsuit: $1,000,000. The amount the officer contributed: 0.
Human Rights Watch notes that taxpayers actually pay three times for officers who repeatedly commit abuses: “once to cover their salaries while they commit abuses; next to pay settlements or civil jury awards against officers; and a third time through payments into police ‘defense’ funds provided by the cities.”
Still, the number of times a police officer is actually held accountable for wrongdoing while on the job is miniscule compared to the number of times cops are allowed to walk away with little more than a slap on the wrist.
A large part of the problem can be chalked up to influential police unions and laws providing for qualified immunity, not to mention these Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights laws, which allow officers to walk away without paying a dime for their wrongdoing.
Another part of the problem is rampant cronyism among government bureaucrats: those deciding whether a police officer should be immune from having to personally pay for misbehavior on the job all belong to the same system, all with a vested interest in protecting the police and their infamous code of silence: city and county attorneys, police commissioners, city councils and judges.
Most of all, what we’re dealing with is systemic corruption that protects wrongdoing and recasts it in a noble light. However, there is nothing noble about government agents who kick, punch, shoot and kill defenseless individuals. There is nothing just about police officers rendered largely immune from prosecution for wrongdoing. There is nothing democratic about the word of a government agent being given greater weight in court than that of the average citizen. And no good can come about when the average citizen has no real means of defense against a system that is weighted in favor of government bureaucrats.
So if you want a recipe for disaster, this is it: Take police cadets, train them in the ways of war, dress and equip them for battle, teach them to see the people they serve not as human beings but as suspects and enemies, and then indoctrinate them into believing that their main priority is to make it home alive at any cost. While you’re at it, spend more time drilling them on how to use a gun (58 hours) and employ defensive tactics (49 hours) than on how to calm a situation before resorting to force (8 hours).
Then, once they’re hyped up on their own authority and the power of the badge and their gun, throw in a few court rulings suggesting that security takes precedence over individual rights, set it against a backdrop of endless wars and militarized law enforcement, and then add to the mix a populace distracted by entertainment, out of touch with the workings of their government, and more inclined to let a few sorry souls suffer injustice than challenge the status quo or appear unpatriotic.
That’s not to discount the many honorable police officers working thankless jobs across the country in order to serve and protect their fellow citizens, but there can be no denying that, as journalist Michael Daly acknowledges, there is a troublesome “cop culture that tends to dehumanize or at least objectify suspected lawbreakers of whatever race. The instant you are deemed a candidate for arrest, you become not so much a person as a ‘perp.’”
Older cops are equally troubled by this shift in how police are being trained to view Americans—as things, not people. Daly had a veteran police officer join him to review the video footage of 43-year-old Eric Garner crying out and struggling to breathe as cops held him in a chokehold. (In yet another example of how the legal system and the police protect their own, no police officers were charged for Garner’s death.) Daly describes the veteran officer’s reaction to the footage, which as Daly points out, “constitutes a moral indictment not so much of what the police did but of what the police did not do”:
“I don’t see anyone in that video saying, ‘Look, we got to ease up,’” says the veteran officer. “Where’s the human side of you in that you’ve got a guy saying, ‘I can’t breathe?’” The veteran officer goes on, “Somebody needs to say, ‘Stop it!’ That’s what’s missing here was a voice of reason. The only voice we’re hearing is of Eric Garner.” The veteran officer believes Garner might have survived had anybody heeded his pleas. “He could have had a chance,” says the officer, who is black. “But you got to believe he’s a human being first. A human being saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’”
As I point out in my new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, when all is said and done, the various problems we’re facing today—militarized police, police shootings of unarmed people, the electronic concentration camp being erected around us, SWAT team raids, etc.—can be attributed to the fact that our government and its agents have ceased to see us as humans first.
Then again, perhaps we are just as much to blame for this sorry state of affairs. After all, if we want to be treated like human beings—with dignity and worth—then we need to start treating those around us in the same manner. As Martin Luther King Jr. warned in a speech given exactly one year to the day before he was killed: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”