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The Majority of Police Officers Agree That Bad Cops Aren’t Held Accountable

Cop riding a motorcycle

For reasons that are unclear, only a small fraction of the more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States actually track officer misconduct reports. One theory for this lack of accountability is that these statistics are not tracked because what appears like misconduct to most of us, may not be considered misconduct within the department.

If a police officer is cleared of charges and even honored for the actions—even if it costs the life of another—then any initial reports are not a part of police department tracking. Most Americans support our law enforcement officers, and believe that, overall, police officers are often under-appreciated. Unfortunately, there are a small percentage of police officers who abuse their power. Consider the following statistics:

  • A life is taken by a police officer approximately every seven hours.
  • More than half of all police officers surveyed stated it was not unusual for law enforcement officials to turn a blind eye to improper conduct of other officers.
  • Even more alarming, more than 60 percent of police officers stated serious abuse by an officer, when observed directly by fellow officers, often went unreported.
  • Close to half of the police officers surveyed agreed with this statement: “Always following the rules is not compatible with the need to get the job done.”
  • More than three-fourths (84 percent) of all police officers stated they had, at one time or another, witnessed a fellow police officer using excessive force.
  • An unarmed black man is at least twice as likely to be killed by a police officer, as compared to a white man, however a Native American man is just as likely to be killed by a police officer as a black man.
  • Twenty-five percent of those killed by a police officer in the U.S. are not carrying a weapon of any type.
  • Excessive force is the most common type of police misconduct.
  • Your geographical location matters—An African American is seven times as likely to be killed by an Oklahoma police officer as a police officer in Georgia.
  • Nearly three-quarters of African-Americans who are the victim of police brutality were both unarmed, and suspected of a non-violent crime.
  • When police brutality is claimed by a suspect, the officer is charged with a crime only 3 percent of the time.
  • Among the 100 largest cities in the United States, from 2013-2016, only 3 police departments in those cities did not have any fatal police shootings (Buffalo, NY, Plano, TX, and Irvine, CA).
  • On the other side of the race issue, police officers are 18.5 times more likely to be killed by an African-American person.
  • The Dallas PD saw a 60 percent drop in the number of complaints against police officers between 2009 and 2014 after implementing mandatory de-escalation techniques as a part of their regular training for police officers.

Over the last few years, it seems as though the use of excessive force by police officers has escalated significantly. It is extremely important that our society take this very seriously, affording human life the value it deserves. Procedures and policies must be implemented in every single police department which reflect this value for human life.

A Police Officer Explains How Law Enforcement Get Away with Killing Citizens

A South Carolina former police officer, Raeford Davis, has become an outspoken advocate against police brutality. Davis believes that police officers are not individually racist, rather they are “actors in a racist system.” When asked to explain the comment, Davis said that while the laws apply to everyone in theory, they are commonly used to target minority communities, which destabilizes communities. Davis also noted that the overarching theme in police training programs is to always maintain control—no matter what. Davis says the majority of the training time is spent learning how to physically control a suspect through the use of force—shooting, striking, taking a person down, and handcuffing to maintain control. Until very recently, Davis notes, there was very little—if any—training on deescalating a dangerous situation.

Further, according to Davis, it is typically very difficult to spot an overly-aggressive person during police training, and, in fact, many of those who were not overly aggressive, became that way after being a police officer for a year or more. Davis also noted that police officers know about literally hundreds of obscure, confusing laws that the average citizen has no knowledge of. This knowledge allows them to “reverse-engineer those laws in order to justify the virtually unlimited force and violence” you see among police officers today.

Social Issues Have Become Criminal Justice Issues

While police officers across the United States risk their lives for the safety of others every single day, the fact remains there are far too many people—primarily young, black men, dying at the hands of the police. And, despite the recent rash of excessive force issues, about 75 percent of all those in the United States say they approve of the job being done by their local police officers. While police officers are generally thought of as decent people just doing their job, the act of “policing” garners wide distrust.

Many believe the problems in today’s police departments are simply social problems such as drug use and mental illness, which have been relegated to the responsibility of the police. These broad levels of social problems have been handed willingly over to our criminal justice system—a system that is simply not equipped to deal with them. Better police training, as well as police departments which do not rely so heavily on physical violence could potentially at least begin the changes we need to see. First, however, police officers must be held accountable when they make bad decisions—particularly those bad decisions which end in the death of another human being.

Are Bad Cops Being Held Accountable?

Many of today’s police officers feel that the only voices they hear are the critical ones—that their good works often go unnoticed, while a negative action by a police officer is reported over and over and over again. One officer noted that during the ten seconds you see a police officer hitting a man on television, it looks awful, but what you don’t see, is what came before that show of force. “Any use of force looks horrible, even if it is completely necessary.” Many officers also note that if people would not resist arrest, then they would not end up getting hurt or killed. That being said, in many ways our system is constructed so that police officers are above the law—and many police officers agree with this assessment.

Police Officers Being Bad

Between 2014 and 2015, a number of investigations turned up corruption scandals involving racism in police departments in New Jersey, San Francisco, Ohio, Louisiana, Georgia and, of course, Ferguson, Missouri. In 2016, dozens of Oakland, CA officers were part of a years-long sex abuse scandal which involved an underage girl. Chicago and New York City had their own scandals, involving sex, drugs and weapons. A police officer in Long Island filed a lawsuit against the police department for “turning a blind eye” to domestic violence charges against officers as well as one police officer’s “fatally negligent response” to an emergency, which resulted in the death of a civilian. The lawsuit claims the police department has a long history “rife with public corruption, where crimes and serious misconduct are condoned.”

How Other Police Officers Feel About Misconduct by Fellow Officers

A recent national Pew Research Center survey of 8,000 police officers across the nation found that only about one-fourth of police officers believe there are any consequences to fellow officers for misconduct. Seventy-two percent agreed with the statement that “poorly performing officers are not held accountable for bad behavior.” Yet many of these same officers believe the recent high-profile deaths of black people by police officers have made their jobs more difficult, and are skeptical of the protests following those events. About 70 percent of black officers believed the protests were motivated by a legitimate interest in bringing about police accountability, but only 27 percent of white police officers believed the interests in bringing about police accountability were legitimate.  

When police officers were asked whether they agreed that police officers who consistently do a poor job are held accountable 47 percent disagreed, and 25 percent strongly disagreed. Barely more than half of the police officers believed the disciplinary process in their department was fair. More than 90 percent of white police officers believe the necessary changes to achieve racial equality have already taken place—only 8 percent of African American citizens would agree with this sentiment. In fact, while more than half the American public believes our country needs major changes to achieve racial equality, only 16 percent of police officers believe there are changes necessary.

How Police Officers Evade Accountability for Their Actions

A former police officer and associated professor of criminal justice, Philip M. Stinson, believes he knows how so many law enforcement officers evade accountability for their actions. Stinson found that for police officers, arrests for DUI rarely end in convictions. Stinson also found that rookie cops are seen as more prone to violence and more reckless, and, as a result, are rarely disciplined internally for misconduct—although veteran police officers are more likely to be disciplined than rookies. Stinson found that between 2005 and 2011, only 41 police officers were charged with manslaughter or murder, although there were several thousand justifiable homicides by police officers during the same period.  

It can be difficult to really know how many fatal police shootings occur each year, because FBI databases rely on local law enforcement reporting of such incidents, and, since reporting is not mandatory, many police departments do not report such incidents. Estimates of the number of police shootings is somewhere between 15,000 and 18,000, although there is no way of knowing whether that number is remotely accurate. It is difficult for states to objectively investigate themselves, and the unspoken code of conduct within law enforcement can deter police officers to report fellow officers’ misconduct—including police brutality.

Those police officers who “tell” on their fellow police officers for misconduct find themselves bearing the brunt of harassment from other officers, or, in some cases, were even fired for blowing the whistle. Grand juries are much more likely to favor the police defendant in a case of excessive force or police brutality—even when no evidence exists that a suspect was armed, if the officer claims the killing was accidental, a grand jury is likely to believe the officer. For a police officer to be charged with manslaughter or murder, proof of intent to harm or kill must be present, and it must be shown that the officer had a total disregard for the situation or their own actions—something which is very difficult to prove.

In fact, the indictment process for police officers tends to be so “opaque,” that the state of California banned the use of secret grand juries in cases involving police killings. The reason for this move was, ostensibly, the fact that a refusal to indict has fostered “an atmosphere of suspicion,” which “threatens to compromise our justice system.”  Yet prosecutors who work closely with police departments are often unwilling to hear cases involving officer shootings or allegations of excessive force. Jurors can be unwilling to convict a police officer, should the case get that far, and many jurors do not even fully believe a police officer could be capable of murder.

Our current system needs significant changes, and it seems that at least some police officers are willing to participate in those changes in order to reduce the number of police misconduct and police brutality or excessive force instances. Police officers must be held accountable for their actions in order for real changes to occur.

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Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.