Police Brutality's Cure Lies in National Policing Standards

“All I can see on that video is my Dad just trying to live for his kids, just fighting for us … You can hear his voice get muffled and high-pitched. It sounds like he was scared. Really scared. He wasn’t fighting the police. He was fighting to breathe."

- Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner. Rest in Peace, Erica. Your fight is our fight, and there will be Justice for All.

Five hundred nineteen (519) people have been killed by police in the USA in 2019 as of July 30 according to The Washington Post’s Fatal Force database of police brutality. Too many of these cases look like the high-profile tragedies we have seen in the national media. Here are links to the explicit and horrifying video footage of the killings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, and Tony Timpa. The facts in each of these cases are hideous, and even worse is the lack of sufficient consequences suffered by those police officers responsible for these killings.

The recently released video (they say it took 3 years of exhausting litigation to wrest a copy from the grip of the police department!) of Tony Timpa’s killing is a perfectly ugly example of alleged police negligence and bravado that allegedly caused Mr. Timpa’s death:

“In 2016, Tony Timpa, a Dallas citizen, called 911 on the night of Aug. 10, saying he was mentally ill, afraid and in need of help. When police arrived, he was unarmed and handcuffed by two private security guards. Within 20 minutes he was dead. […] The video showed Timpa rolling around the grass in a state of panic, repeatedly screaming “You’re gonna kill me!” while officers tried to subdue him. Eventually, officers replaced Timpa’s handcuffs, zip-tied his legs together and pinned him to the ground. Officer Dustin Dillard then placed his knee in the small of Timpa’s back for more than 13 minutes. By the time paramedics arrived, Timpa had “suffocated.” Throughout the video, three officers–Dillard, Danny Vasquez, and Kevin Mansell–can be heard joking about Timpa as he loses consciousness, saying things like: “I don’t want to go to school! Five more minutes mom!” They also made jokes regarding his income bracket and his mental health issues.”

- “Graphic Body Cam Video of Dallas Man’s In-Custody Death Has Been Released”, Matt Clibanoff, Law and Crime, July 31, 2019.

Yes: there are laws against police brutality and abuse-of-power. There are local commissions run by independent citizens, political appointees, and/or police supervisors responsible to investigate all such complaints. Local prosecutors are required to bring criminal charges against police whenever appropriate. Local personal injury lawyers do help a small percentage of victims to bring lawsuits against police and their departments for such violations. But we know that all this is still not nearly enough to solve the problem.

Nearly none of the officers involved in police killings have been held accountable: For example, “99% of cases in 2015 have not resulted in any officer(s) involved being convicted of a crime.” See MappingPoliceViolence.org.

“If police are charged, they’re rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated. […] The low conviction and incarceration rates have fed into the idea among critics of law enforcement that police can get away with using deadly force even in situations that don’t call for it. This poses concerns for those who want to hold police accountable, but critics also worry it has fostered a police culture that’s too lenient in using force because cops believe there most likely won’t be legal consequences even if they make a bad call.”

- “Cops are almost never prosecuted and convicted for use of force”, German Lopez, Vox, Nov. 14, 2018.

In the absence of sufficiently strong local regulations and state legislation defining acceptable police use-of-force, and given the dearth of real investigations and meaningful punishments for police brutality and abuse-of-power, it is time for our federal government to intervene by way of the use of executive orders and federal legislation to create and enforce national policing standards.

The Federal Government Should Implement National Policing Standards

There are at least four major reasons for federal intervention in this historically local domain, and there are strong arguments in favor of the same. First, when localities fail to uphold our civil rights, it is the responsibility of our federal government to step in. Second, we are a mobile society moving freely between states via modern transportation methods, and we deserve to feel safe wherever we are, be it in Seattle, Washington or Montgomery, Alabama; the same goes for all visitors to our nation, be they tourists, refugees, or migrant workers. Third, all Americans agree that police brutality and abuse-of-power are an affront to our civil rights and criminal codes and should be duly treated as such. Defining what qualifies as brutality and abuse of process is key. Any gaps in the system caused by the “thin blue line” and local political and administrative racism or negligence should be summarily shut. Fourth, the federal government grants billions of dollars each year to local police departments to support national security interests in regards to transportation safety, anti-drug efforts, and anti-terrorism efforts, among others. In exchange for such money, the federal government has a legal interest and affirmative duty to ensure that it’s not funding police brutality and abuse-of-power.

According to a 2018 Congressional white-paper, there are multiple ways in which the federal government can influence local police standards, such as:

“- placing conditions on federal funding to encourage law enforcement to adopt policy changes to promote better community relations;

- expanding efforts to collect more comprehensive data on the use-of-force by law enforcement officers;

- providing grants to law enforcement agencies for the purchase of body-worn cameras for their officers;

- taking steps to facilitate investigations and prosecutions of excessive force by amending 18 U.S.C. Section 242 to reduce the mens rea standard in federal prosecutions, or place conditions on federal funds to promote the use of special prosecutors at the state level;

- funding Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) hiring grants so law enforcement agencies can have more officers engaging in community policing activities; or

- using the influence of congressional authority to affect the direction of national criminal justice policy.”

- “What Role Might the Federal Government Play in Law Enforcement Reform?”, Nathan James and Ben Harrington, Congressional Research Service, Nov. 16, 2018.

Of course, national policing standards should require, as a baseline, rigorous comportment with all criminal laws and civil rights law. But they must go far beyond that in their details, for if we leave interpretation up to the localities, we will see no change to our current blood-soaked and racist system. National policing standards should require local police departments to make many serious changes.

Methods to Reform Police Departments and the Criminal Justice System

In “Building Momentum From the Ground Up: A Toolkit for Promoting Justice in Policing”, published by The Center for Popular Democracy in April 2015, we are provided 15 thoughtful methods to reform policing and criminal justice at the local and state level.

Here are 9 of them with a partial summary of each (the report should truly be perused in its entirety):

  1. Decriminalization: local and state governments should eliminate or tone down laws that go too far by criminalizing conduct that should have either civil ramifications or be altogether legal, e.g., camping, public urination, marijuana use, carrying a pocketknife, spitting, public drunkenness, trespassing, and truancy (I’m looking at you, Kamala Harris!).

  2. Municipal Court Reforms: bench warrants and failure-to-appear crimes should be eliminated or have their consequences mitigated; generally, criminal fines should be income-dependent; licenses shouldn’t be suspended for traffic violations; traffic ticket fines should be reduced; community service should be an alternative to monetary fines.

  3. Respectful and Constitutional Community/ Law Enforcement Interactions: police should not violate our civil rights or criminal laws when interacting with the public; the public should have greater rights and pathways to redress police abuse via easy-to-navigate administrative complaints and lawsuits.

  4. Consent to Search: police should be required to obtain verified proof of consent to search criminal suspects; cops should be trained in how to properly obtain consent from non-English speakers and people with mental illnesses.

  5. Community Control and Access: community oversight groups should truly represent the diversity of the constituent community; and they should have more access to citizen complaints about the police, ability to investigate such complaints, and more of a say in the punishment of police who violate standards and laws.

  6. Body Cameras: all police should be required to wear body cams and have them on at all relevant times; if cops turn them off at relevant times, there should be a presumption of misconduct in such circumstances; tampering with such footage should carry criminal penalties; and community oversight groups should have immediate access to footage in investigating brutality and abuse-of-power complaints.

  7. Demilitarize Local Police Forces: cops don’t need special-ops military gear to police us, plain and simple; and supplying them with such gear creates a culture that promotes excessive violence and brazen misconduct.

  8. Use of Force: police should employ deescalation methods rather than overkill in their interactions with suspects; they should be properly trained and supervised in all use-of-force interactions; and there should be sufficient community and administrative oversight of all such uses of force.

  9. Improved Training: police should be better and more frequently trained to learn how to deescalate tense situations, to deal with non-English speakers and the mentally ill, to avoid prejudices in their work, and to generally be decent human beings; police who fail to live up to such standards should be monitored and terminated as appropriate.

    See “Building Momentum From the Ground Up: A Toolkit for Promoting Justice in Policing”, The Center for Popular Democracy, April 2015.

Choke-holds & seatbelt holds Should Be Banned, excessive use of force should be punished, and troubled police should be fired not hired

After watching Eric Garner suffocated to death by the NYPD, we all know that deadly maneuvers like choke-holds and “seatbelt holds” should be illegal, and we know that police officers with an alleged history of abuse should no longer be employed as such. After watching Walter Scott shot at 8 times, with 5 bullets hitting him including 3 in the back, while running unarmed from his car after a South Carolina traffic stop, we know that officers need more substantial and regular training and assessments particularly in use-of-force. After watching 12 year-old Tamir Rice gunned down by a cop within seconds after exiting his patrol car while the boy was playing during the daytime in a Cleveland park with a toy pellet gun, we know that we must more rigorously evaluate police applicants to ensure both their mental preparation for the job and their history of safe interactions with the public.

With 1,164 police killings in 2018, “there were only 23 days in 2018 where police did not kill someone.” After years of watching police brutality reports horrify us in mainstream and social media, we know it’s time for the federal government to take action to fill the gap left by racist and negligent police departments. When “a few bad apples” are killing a thousand people a year and terrorizing huge percentages of the public in every interaction, when so many of us feel a chill when we so much as see a police officer, when police departments are looking more like wartime special-ops military units given the degree of weapons they buy and carry each year, when African-Americans are three times more likely to be killed by cops than White Americans and less than a third of African-Americans killed by cops are suspected of a violent crime and allegedly armed, and when literally 99% of cops who kill face no criminal convictions, we know it’s time for a national change!

Take this into consideration when you decide whether you’re going to vote in 2020, and for whom you will cast your vote. Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren are among the 2020 Presidential candidates who voice support for sweeping criminal justice reform and whose extensive political history authenticates their words. Educate yourself, because it may be a matter of life and death: yours.