I’m not inclined to criticize police officers who use force to protect themselves and others. But they often use deadly force in questionable circumstances. And black men die at disproportionate rates. Very rarely are police officers held accountable for what they do. They should be.
Even if I were not a political scientist who understood both the importance of what police officers do every day and the dangers they face in their job, I would have a very personal reason for appreciating their work. Years ago, police officers put their bodies on the line to protect my father, when he was a justice of the peace in upstate New York.
So like most Americans, I’m not inclined to criticize police officers who use force to protect themselves and others.
At the same time, the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner remind us that sometimes police officers use deadly force in questionable circumstances. And there is dramatic statistical evidence that institutional racism plays a role in who is killed by the police — black men die at disproportionate rates. But very rarely are police officers held accountable for what they do.
They should be.
We need a criminal trial
I reach that conclusion not because I know all the details of these three cases — but, rather, because I do not. None of us does, for the very simple reason that the evidence in these cases has not been brought forward and tested in public, by the process we believe best enables us to get the truth, a criminal trial. In the Brown and Garner deaths, a grand jury declined to indict the police officers involved. We are still waiting to see what happens in the Rice case.
I don’t think police officers should be indicted in these cases because I think they are guilty. I don’t know if they’re guilty. An indictment is not a judgment of guilt. Someone indicted is still innocent until proven guilty in a trial. I think they should be indicted both so that justice is done in the individual cases and because it is critically important to hold the police accountable for their actions, both for the public that relies on the police, and for the overwhelming majority of police officers who do their job well and want the rest to be held to the same standard.
There are a number of ways to reduce unwarranted police shootings. It appears that new training programs in Philadelphia have reduced them dramatically. Such programs should be broadly adopted.
And putting video cameras on police officers is an idea that has merit as well — even if, as we saw in the Garner case, the meaning of a video is subject to dispute.
But neither training the police to do well nor watching what they do is enough. It’s a settled principle of American Constitutionalism, and implicit in our practices — not just in politics but in business, medicine, education and other fields — that the best way to insure that people do the right thing to institute some form of oversight or check on their misbehavior.
The criminal justice system is the appropriate oversight when people are killed. It is for civilians. It should be for the police. But it is not today.
How can we make it effective? Here are five suggestions
1. Appoint special prosecutors to investigate police killings.
We have ample evidence that even the best district attorneys need to be concerned about protecting their relationship with the police, without whom they cannot do their jobs. They are thus very much disinclined to do what they usually do before a grand jury, which is to make a case for an indictment. So let’s take them out of this difficult situation and let a specially appointed attorney investigate deaths at the hands of the police.
I would suggest that judges — say the president judge of Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia — be empowered to recruit a pool of lawyers with extensive experience to serve as special prosecutors and that they then be chosen at random to investigate particular cases as they arise.
2. Give special prosecutors adequate resources.
Special prosecutors need a guarantee that they will have the resources and tools needed to carry out a thorough investigation. Perhaps the state police should be empowered to take the place of local police forces.
3. Make the grand jury proceedings public.
All of these cases should come before a specially empaneled grand jury that holds its sessions in public. Private grand juries allow selected and unbalanced evidence to be leaked. Unlike most criminal cases, the names of the police officers under investigation are already public. So there is no reason to hold these sessions in private, except in the rare situation when this is the only way to secure testimony. Public sessions will enable the media and public to evaluate whether the DA is making a proper case.
4. Empower the families of the deceased.
Resources should be provided to the family of those killed by the police sothey can make some kind of legal pleading at the grand jury.
5. The public should pay for the proceedings.
The legal fees of those police officers investigated by the special prosecutor and brought to trial should be paid by the public. And while they should not be allowed to act as police officers during their trial, they should continue to be paid until it is over.
The point of these new procedures is not to create an investigation or trial biased against the police. That would be as unfair to the police and as dangerous to the public as the current situation. The point is to create the oversight that, along with better training and video recordings, can restore confidence in the police among a public that very much needs to work with law enforcement in order to keep our communities safe.
Marc Stier is a writer and political activist from Mt. Airy. He’s finishing a book titled “Civilization and Its Contents: Reflections on Sexuality and the Culture Wars.”