Police Misconduct That Goes Unreported and Undocumented Undermines Our Criminal Justice System

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Nov 14, 2015

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Police Officer with GunThe police play a vital role in the nation’s criminal justice system. Prosecutors, judges, and the public depend on the police to investigate crime, to make arrests that are supported by probable cause, and to adhere to professional standards that preserve the system’s integrity. When police officers honor their oath to uphold the law, they earn praise for making the system work. When they break the law rather than enforcing it, police officers undermine the efforts of their honest colleagues.

Contributing to a growing sense that too many police agencies are out of control, a yearlong investigation by the Associated Press discovered that one thousand police officers around the nation lost their law enforcement credentials during the last six years due to allegations of sexual misconduct. Their criminal misconduct ranged from sexual assaults, including rape and sodomy, to the possession of child pornography. Other examples of sexual misconduct included offering to forgive traffic tickets in exchange for sex or patronizing prostitutes while the officers were on duty.

The AP reporters reviewed records in all 50 states, but the investigation represents the tip of the iceberg. The results include only those officers whose authority to work in law enforcement was revoked. Some states, including New York and California, have no statewide system to decertify officers for misconduct. Other states routinely impose lesser discipline (if any at all) for offenses that do not lead to serious criminal convictions. Even in states that maintain records of decertification, the AP verified cases of sexual misconduct that did not result in the officer’s removal from employment.

In a large but uncountable number of cases, the officer’s misconduct is never reported. Victims often fear criminal prosecution or retaliation if they report sexual misconduct committed by a police officer. In some instances, authorities encourage the victim to withdraw the charge before it results in discipline.

Growing Concerns About Police Misconduct

Few people deny that the police have difficult job. Most police officers are decent individuals who do not commit crimes. Yet it is telling that when seventy police chiefs attending a conference were asked if they had dealt with an officer accused of sexual misconduct, all seventy raised a hand.

The scope of the problem that the AP investigation identified raises serious concerns. The police wield enormous authority over ordinary individuals. If they are not held accountable when they abuse that authority — even when the abusers represent a fraction of the law enforcement community — the people they are paid to protect and to serve will lose respect for, and stop trusting, the police. According to the Gallup Poll, public confidence in the police has reached its lowest point in the last 22 years.

Sexual misconduct is not the only issue that jeopardizes the relationship between the police and the public. Stories about police misconduct appear in the media every day. Detroit police officers who allegedly stole money from people they stopped on the street, Waukegan officers who fabricated evidence to obtain convictions, police brutality in Baltimore and Los Angeles, racial bias in the Ferguson Police Department, and police shootings of unarmed civilians across the country are just a few headline-grabbing examples. Daily updates on incidents of police misconduct are reported on the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project newsfeed.

Policing the Police

Lawless law enforcers pose a serious threat to the integrity of the criminal justice system, but getting a handle on the breadth of the problem is difficult. As the Associated Press points out, the “Bureau of Justice Statistics, which collects police data from around the country, doesn’t track officer arrests, and states aren’t required to collect or share that information.” Mandating reporting of police misconduct to a federal agency and granting public access to a centralized database of officer arrests and discipline would send a signal that the public will no longer tolerate a law enforcement culture that sweeps allegations of abuse under the rug.

Other “best practice” suggestions include requiring police officers to wear body cameras. Apart from helping law enforcement agencies weed out bad officers, body cameras would presumably give all officers a continual incentive to be on their best behavior. Yet technology does not provide a complete answer to the problem. Dash cameras in police cars have provided valuable evidence by capturing incidents of police abuse, but police agencies have been accused of editing dash cam footage. In one recent case, an officer allegedly turned off his dash camera before beating a member of Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority who was investigating charges of police misconduct.

In the end, changing a law enforcement culture that tolerates abuse and protects officers from recriminations is the key to assuring that the police obey the laws they have sworn to enforce. That starts with careful screening (including psychological testing) to hire candidates who are well balanced and sensitive to the needs of others. Training programs, careful supervision, dismantling the blue wall of silence that protects officers who engage in misconduct, and a willingness to fire officers who break the law should all be part of a serious program to restore respect for the criminal justice system.

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