Some States Are Finally Getting Serious About Addressing Police Misconduct

“The nation has finally learned what it takes to remove a bad officer from a police force and provide some modicum of justice in a police-abuse case. We need only capture on video an officer slowly snuffing out a man’s life, have that video go viral, endure some of the most far-reaching protests and riots in modern history and, then, after nearly a year of soul-searching and debate, wait for a jury to render a verdict.”

“The causes of that incident, however, took place long before the awful scene we watched unfold last May.
“(A)nyone who looked closely at Chauvin’s record would have known—should have known—that one day something bad was likely to happen while he was on the job,” noted Jonathan Last in a column this week in The Bulwark. Chauvin “had 18 official complaints against him in his file—these are only the ones that citizens actually got up and followed through on registering.”

In discussing police reform on social media and with friends, people often will say, “Police departments should just fire dirty cops.” That’s the right idea, of course, but legislatures and courts have created a multi-layered system that makes it nearly impossible to accomplish that seemingly simple task. Public-safety debates become emotional and divisive, so it becomes difficult to pass reforms that advance that common-sense outcome.”

The Chauvin Verdict Is a Reminder That We Still Need To Abolish Qualified Immunity

“It’s remarkably rare for a police officer to face criminal charges for the misuse of force. We know that Chauvin had 22 complaints filed against him by the time he was arrested for Floyd’s death, and that he was allowed to remain with the MPD through all of them.

When it comes to fatal encounters, we have a slightly better idea of the disparity: Only about 139 officers since 2005 have been charged with murder or manslaughter in relation to an on-duty shooting, though about 1,000 fatal police shootings occur each year. Of the officers charged, a small minority are convicted.

Counting fatal encounters omits many more victims of police misconduct who live to tell about it. The data we do have paints an incomplete but unsettling picture, as police departments often refuse to make public reports against officers. A report from ProPublica is instructive: “In 2018, the [Civilian Complaint Review Board] looked into about 3,000 allegations of misuse of force [in the New York Police Department],” wrote Eric Urmansky last summer. “It was able to substantiate 73 of those allegations. The biggest punishment? Nine officers who lost vacation days.”

In other words, people whose rights are violated by police can’t always count on the criminal courts or even police departments to reprimand their employees; civil suits are often the only avenue to justice. Yet thanks to qualified immunity, those individuals often find that road blocked off, too.

The legal doctrine, manufactured by the Supreme Court, protects government officials from federal civil rights lawsuits if the official’s specific behavior was not “clearly established” as a rights violation in a precedent handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court or by another court within the same circuit. In other words, for a plaintiff to sue a police officer in federal court, a prior plaintiff must’ve already sued over the exact same violation and won. Any plaintiff who sues after being harmed in a remotely unique way risks being told that the officer who harmed them could not have been expected to know they were violating the Constitution.”

“Chauvin might seem like an example unbefitting of this discussion—the City of Minneapolis settled with Floyd’s family for a reported $27 million. Had the case not been filmed and highly publicized, as in the above examples, that might not have happened.

“Incredibly, had the city not chosen to settle the lawsuit, Derek Chauvin would have had a very plausible chance of getting the suit thrown out on qualified immunity grounds—even after being convicted of murder,” says Clark Neily, vice president for criminal justice at the Cato Institute. “There is no preexisting case in the Eighth Circuit under which it was ‘clearly established’ that pinning a suspect under one’s knee for nearly ten minutes until they lose consciousness and their heart stops beating violates the Fourth Amendment.”

The video footage here was the game-changer—something that victims aren’t always afforded. It’s also something that government officials may take issue with. In 2014, officers in Denver, Colorado, attempted to force a bystander to delete a film he took of them beating a suspect during an arrest. Though a federal court ruled those cops violated the First Amendment in doing so, it gave them qualified immunity.”

House passes police reform bill

“The bill would prohibit racial and religious profiling by law enforcement at every level while banning chokeholds at the federal level and no-knock warrants in federal drug cases. The federal policies would be tied to law enforcement funding for governments at the state and local levels.

The measure would also eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement, mandate data collection on police encounters and create a nationwide police misconduct registry to hold accountable problematic officers who are fired or leave an agency.”

“the bill’s fate in the upper chamber is still uncertain, as Democrats would need at least 10 Republicans to send the legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk.”

New York City Paid an NBA Star Millions After an NYPD Officer Broke His Leg. The Officer Paid Little Price.

“Five years ago, NBA guard Thabo Sefolosha was standing outside a nightclub when he was tackled by five New York Police Department officers, one of whom broke his leg with a baton.

Sefolosha sued, and the city paid its largest settlement for alleged police brutality in years, $4.5 million. After all, Sefolosha had to have surgery and couldn’t play basketball for a year. And a jury had acquitted Sefolosha of the charges against him for allegedly resisting arrest. The whole incident had been caught on tape.

But the payout — which didn’t cost the officers a dime — is where any accountability ended. The city had insisted during the case that the officers were blameless, and they ended up facing no significant punishment.

It’s left Sefolosha frustrated. “To get a settlement was a small victory. But big picture, it’s a small drop,” Sefolosha told ProPublica from his home in Vevey, Switzerland. “When are people going to be held accountable? You have to have repercussions. They’re going to do it over and over again.”

New York City has paid more than $1 billion over the past five years to settle lawsuits against the NYPD, according to data released by the city. ProPublica examined dozens of the biggest payouts in cases where civilians had also filed complaints with the city agency that reviews alleged police abuse. Again and again, the officers faced minimal or no discipline.

In one case, the city paid out $125,000 when officers allegedly fractured someone’s cheekbone with a flashlight. The officers were not disciplined. In another case, officers allegedly bashed in a man’s car window with a baton, then broke his ankle dragging him from the vehicle and charged him with resisting arrest. The charges were dropped and the city paid $460,000 to settle. The officers again faced no discipline.

In the 45 cases we examined, the harshest penalty any officer received was a loss of 15 vacation days — for punching a teenager and knocking him unconscious in an incident caught on tape that went viral. The city settled that case for $200,000.”

“Over the past seven years, at least 800 officers have been named as defendants in five or more suits settled by the city.”

“In a few cases reviewed by ProPublica, the city has defended officers who seem to have lied or engaged in what was clearly misconduct.”

“Byrne dismissed the idea that settlements can be useful in identifying problematic officers. “My belief is the settlement means nothing,” he said. Settlements often happen when the city decides lawsuits are not worth fighting and “not because the officer did anything wrong.”

But at times, the Law Department’s ferocious approach to defending the NYPD has drawn criticism from judges handling the cases. In one case, a federal judge in Manhattan admonished the NYPD for not having turned over evidence in a case where a man died after being tackled by police outside Yankee Stadium.

The city’s lawyers had long claimed that there were no recorded radio calls from the incident. When the judge insisted the head of the NYPD’s legal bureau sign an affidavit attesting to that, the calls suddenly turned up.”

Phoenix Will Pay $3 Million Settlement After Police Shot a Man During a Noise Complaint. The Officers Are Still Employed.

“The Phoenix City Council on Wednesday unanimously agreed to pay $3 million to the family of Ryan Whitaker, who was shot and killed several months ago by police investigating a noise complaint and who did not receive immediate medical assistance after the incident.

Taxpayers will be footing the bill. Taxpayers are also footing the bill for the salaries of the cops—Officer Jeff Cooke, who pulled the trigger, and Officer John Ferragamo, who too was on the call—as they are both still employed by the Phoenix Police Department (PPD).”

“Whitaker answered the door with a firearm at his waist, which he legally owned, and can be seen in the body cam footage immediately getting on his knees in surrender. Cooke then shot him twice in the back.”

“The PPD has developed somewhat of a sordid track record of late. The city shelled out $475,000 to Dravon Ames and his family after police brandished their weapons and threatened to shoot him and his pregnant fiancée when their 4-year-old daughter shoplifted a Barbie from a Family Dollar store in May 2019. “I’m gonna put a fucking cap right in your fucking head!” a cop can be heard saying in video footage captured via a bystander. That same officer, Chris Meyer, is seen kicking Ames after he had been handcuffed, and the family’s suit alleges the officer punched Ames “very hard in the back for no reason.” Meyer has since been terminated.

And in August of this year, Ramon Lopez died after a group of cops pinned him down on hot asphalt for several minutes, streaking his back with what appear to be burns. He was reported for loitering in a parking lot, “sticking his tongue out,” and “looking at people’s cars.”

All three instances provide a gruesome window into excessive force. But they also put forward an important lesson on the potential effects of overcriminalization—particularly in Whitaker’s and Lopez’s cases—where armed agents of the state are routinely relied upon not only to address violent crimes, but to investigate minor inconveniences.”

Behind the Strategic Failure of the Capitol Police

“It wasn’t just the building that had them horrified. In the past two decades, the Capitol Police has grown into one of the largest, best-funded and most single-focus police departments in the country, with a budget of more than $460 million and around 2,000 sworn officers to guard just 2 square miles of the capital. (By comparison, that’s half the size of the entire police force for Washington, D.C.)”

“Appalled experts, watching the crisis unfold, asked themselves: Where was the protective intelligence? Where was the quick reaction force? Where were the long guns? Where were the helmets and batons? Where were the tall, secure fences that normally ring the Capitol during high-profile protests? And perhaps most important: Where was the strategy? Word on Thursday evening that the Capitol Police evidently twice turned down offers of reinforcements only deepened the sense of disbelief.”

“Minute by minute, individual officers sometimes acted bravely, but hour by hour, Wednesday’s events demonstrated a top-to-bottom failure by a key federal law-enforcement agency. The crisis can’t even be called a failure of imagination, as 9/11 is sometimes seen, because in many ways the idea that the pro-Trump mob might march on the Capitol to disrupt the proceedings inside seemed all but obvious. Nor was this an incident that just slipped under the radar. The joint session inside was the single biggest news event in the United States that day, and the rioters had been planning disruptive protest for weeks, in the open.”

“The Capitol Police, which until the 1990s had perennially struggled for resources—more a team of security guards than an elite force—has undergone a sea change since four Capitol-altering events: The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, a 1998 attempt by a gunman to storm the House whip’s office, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent spate of anthrax-laced letters targeting Capitol Hill leaders. Until those events, most members of Congress saw little value in its police force beyond, as one police leader told me, “Where’s my parking space, and can I get a better one?”
The Capitol Police, as much as any federal law enforcement agency, has been the huge beneficiary of the boom in government security spending, nearly tripling in size in the past quarter century—in no small part because it’s the agency in charge of protecting those who appropriate the money in the first place. It has also consolidated its control of Capitol Hill, merging in 2009 with the previously separate Library of Congress police.

Today, the Capitol Police boasts advanced resources equal to the largest and best police departments in the country, including a bomb squad, intelligence unit, hazmat units and specialized dignitary protection agents, as well as crowd control and riot gear and access to an arsenal of weapons that would impress many small armies. Its officers are well-wired with other local and regional police departments and participate in FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces. Plus it has the entire federal government and numerous local and regional D.C. police departments to call upon for help when needed.

And, at its core, its whole job is to protect about 270 acres, a land mass less than a third the size of New York’s Central Park—including, and especially, the 58-acre Capitol and grounds itself. That unusual balance—immense resources and an extremely specific zone to protect—makes its colossal failure Wednesday so much more stunning to law enforcement experts.”

“The Capitol Police should, in theory, have had the crowd-control skills to meet the moment. It’s an agency uniquely experienced in handling First Amendment protests and protesters—on issues as varied as abortion rights, health care or anti-war activists. After run-of-the-mill traffic offenses, protest-related arrests account for the majority of the department’s total arrests; it probably arrests and confronts more protesters than any other police department in the country. Nor are the Capitol Police a stranger to securing high-profile events, from presidential State of the Union addresses to the inauguration set for later this month on the very scaffolding and stands that the Trump mob rampaged over Wednesday.”

“The failure to plan meant that the die was cast as soon as the Trump mob began walking to the Capitol. In the military, the saying goes “prior planning prevents piss-poor performance,” and the Capitol Police lost the battle for Congress on Wednesday hundreds of yards away from its famous steps—as soon as the mob pushed over and past the first low metal fence far down on the west grounds of the approach to the building.
But from there, the department continued to fail, collapsing in a way familiar to any 19th-century general watching an army in retreat. At every turn, officers seemed at a loss to respond, indicating both training lapses and catastrophic leadership failures. There were failures at the start: A video, with unclear context, circulated on social media of Capitol Police even opening and removing barricades to allow the rioters close to the Capitol. There were failures as it unfolded: Other videos showed officers posing for selfies with rioters inside occupied Capitol office buildings. And there were failures as the crisis wound down: An officer even held a woman’s hand as she was escorted out of the building and down the steps. By late afternoon, police had made fewer arrests (13) in the storming of the U.S. Capitol than are typically made at the New York Giants stadium during a home game (21).

It took more than five hours for control to be reestablished, and only after thousands more law enforcement and military resources were rushed to the Capitol from across the city and neighboring states—resources desperately requested from the Pentagon and the FBI, among others, that Capitol Police leaders had turned down in the days and hours ahead of the mob’s arrival.”

Police reform was a big winner this election

“Despite being a contentious issue across party lines, voters..in cities in six states overwhelmingly approved 18 of these ballot measures, including creating and improving police oversight boards, changing police department staffing and funding, and requiring public access to police body and dashboard camera recordings. While most of these measures are a step toward reform, almost none are radical in terms of reimagining policing. Many are standards already implemented in other cities — and a bare minimum for police accountability, activists say.”

Support For Black Lives Matter Surged During Protests, But Is Waning Among White Americans

“The recent protests against police brutality are some of the largest and most widespread in American history. An estimated 15 million to 26 million Americans have taken to the streets to protest police violence and advocate for Black lives.

The remarkable size and scope of these demonstrations has translated into real policy gains, too. Dozens of state and local police reforms have been enacted since the protests started. And at the federal level, President Trump signed an executive order that outlines his administration’s priorities for police reform, including creating a national database that catalogues police misconduct. The House of Representatives passed an even more ambitious piece of legislation that proposes a series of reforms, like tying federal funding to bans on chokeholds and setting up a task force to address excessive police force, but the GOP-controlled Senate hasn’t taken it up.

Arguably, though, the protests’ impact on public opinion has been even more immediate and wide-ranging. Unfavorable views of the police, acknowledgement of widespread discrimination against African Americans and support for Black Lives Matter all jumped up by at least 10 percentage points, according to tracking polls conducted shortly before and after the protests by both Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape and Civiqs.

These changes in public opinion are being driven in large part by white Americans, who for years have been much less likely than Black Americans to acknowledge that racial inequality remains a real problem. Since the first wave of large-scale Black Lives Matter protests in 2014, white Americans’ racial attitudes have gradually become more liberalized while Black Americans’ views have remained relatively steady.

Trump’s many offensive statements may be contributing to this trend, as they seem to be driving Democrats, particularly white Democrats, to adopt more liberal views on race in response. That’s one reason so many white Democrats showed up at the most recent protests.

But the protests’ impact on public opinion appears to be fading — particularly among white Americans”

“unfavorable views of the police are trending back down toward their pre-protest levels among white Americans and have dipped among Black Americans. White respondents are also becoming somewhat less likely to say that African Americans face “a lot” or “a great deal” of discrimination, though those numbers remain higher than they were before before George Floyd was killed in May. Black Americans’ views on the discrimination they face have remained essentially unchanged.”

“This decline in public opinion is consistent with a long line of political science research that tells us that the effects of events on public opinion tend to last only for as long as they are at the forefront of the country’s — or, in this case, one group’s — collective consciousness. That also means that without prolonged activism and sustained media attention, the impact of this year’s protests on white public opinion could evaporate entirely.”

California Police Unions Once Again Side With Bad Cops To Kill a Good Bill

“California is one of only five states that does not have a formal process for decertifying bad cops to keep them from finding patrol work. And it looks like it’s going to stay that way.

In the middle of a massive push for policing reforms in America, law enforcement unions have defeated S.B. 731, a California bill that would have created a commission to hear cases of cops who have engaged in misconduct and determine whether they’d be stripped of their certifications.”

“Several law enforcement unions in the state say they want a process in place to decertify bad cops. They even made a web page to insist that they support things like a database of officers who have been fired for misconduct, and “a fair, reasonable and workable decertification process.” But they object to Bradford’s commission because only three of the nine members would be police officers. Four of the other members would be members of nonprofit or academic institutions and community-based organizations that have experience on “issues related to police misconduct.” One member would be a citizen who has been a survivor of police misconduct (or a relative of somebody who did not survive misconduct). And one would be an attorney with “experience involving oversight of police officers.” Police unions determined that this newly created board would be, in the Associated Press’s words, “inherently biased against officers.””

“The cops and the unions want too much control over what is and is not considered “misconduct.” Time and again, Americans have seen these organizations use their power to defend and make excuses for terrible police behavior. Their ideal form of “due process” for police officers facing misconduct allegations is an ostensibly civilian commission that police control.”