Las Vegas Review-Journal

Police cannot be a law unto themselves

- Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times.

In 2020, during the weeks of protest and civil unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapoli­s police officer, I argued that the problem of police violence and misconduct was a problem of democracy. And last week, in the wake of yet another police killing caught on camera, I think it’s worth saying, again, that the institutio­n of American policing lies outside of any meaningful democratic control.

You can think of accountabi­lity for public institutio­ns in two ways: on the back end and on the front end.

Back-end accountabi­lity takes place, as the name would suggest, after the fact. It is aimed at making sure the rules were followed. In the context of policing, this means civilian review boards, officer discipline and judicial review. Backend accountabi­lity provides recourse for misconduct.

Front-end accountabi­lity, according to the legal scholars Maria Ponomarenk­o and Barry Friedman, who founded the Policing Project at NYU, takes place when there are “rules in place before officials act, which are transparen­t, and formulated with public input.” With front-end accountabi­lity, the public has a direct say in the rules that govern an agency or institutio­n. “Public participat­ion can improve the quality of rules by ensuring that officials have all of the informatio­n they need to make sensible policy,” Ponomarenk­o and Friedman contend. “It also helps to make clear that government officials are, to the extent possible, responsive to the popular will.”

Back-end accountabi­lity is, you could say, legal accountabi­lity while front-end accountabi­lity is democratic accountabi­lity. The two are linked, and in American policing we see the collapse of the former and the almost total absence of the latter. “Police department­s are too often insulated from legitimate citizen challenges,” Amy Lerman and Vesla Weaver write in “Arresting Citizenshi­p: The Democratic Consequenc­es of American Crime Control.” Citizens, they continue, “are denied effective mechanisms for ensuring that the police are held accountabl­e.”

American police officers have extraordin­ary power to work their will as they see fit. Local rules vary but generally speaking they can stop and frisk on the “reasonable suspicion” that you are “armed and presently dangerous.” They can stop and conduct a warrantles­s search of your vehicle with only “probable cause” that someone in the car or truck or van is committing a crime. The police have no obligation to either protect or assist you, even in the face of a credible threat to your life, and they are virtually immune to legal consequenc­es for their actions under the doctrine of “qualified immunity,” with so few exceptions — like the almost immediate arrest of the offending officers accused in the killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tenn. — that it essentiall­y proves the rule.

What little accountabi­lity exists for American police is easily subverted. Internal affairs department­s are often more interested in exoneratin­g colleagues than investigat­ing misconduct, and police unions do everything they can to shield bad actors, attack critics and secure more due process for cops accused of abuse than their victims ever get.

On those occasions when voters try to bring police department­s under greater public control — by seeking to elect reform-minded mayors or district attorneys — police officers will do everything to undermine the officials in question. In 2019, San Francisco’s police union spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on campaign ads attacking Chesa Boudin, a progressiv­e critic of law enforcemen­t who was running for district attorney, as the best choice of “criminals and gang members.” In 2020, likewise, police unions spent millions trying to defeat a reformist candidate for district attorney in Los Angeles. And in Albuquerqu­e, N.M., police unions and their allies fought a yearslong battle to try to stymie a proposed civilian oversight board that would have greater oversight authority.

The absence of legal and, especially, democratic accountabi­lity is, or should be, an existentia­l problem for any police reform agenda. Without a strategy to curb or break the cartel power of police department­s — meaning their ability to undermine, neuter and subvert all attempts to regulate and control their actions and personnel — there is no practical way to achieve meaningful and lasting reform, if that is your goal. Indeed, anything resembling a root-and-branch transforma­tion of American policing will only ever occur after the public is able to exercise real control over the institutio­n itself.

Put a little differentl­y, the only reforms that can take hold in the absence of direct democratic accountabi­lity — where the public itself can shape the rules that govern policing and police officers — are those that don’t actually alter the status quo of police culture and police institutio­ns. There is a reason, after all, that most police department­s issue body cameras to their officers without serious pushback; the footage is theirs to control, in the main, and withhold from the public, should they desire to do so.

With great power should come greater responsibi­lity and accountabi­lity. The more authority you hold in your hands, the tighter the restraints should be on your wrists. To give power and authority without responsibi­lity or accountabi­lity — to give an institutio­n and its agents the right and the ability to do violence without restraint or consequenc­e — is to cultivate the worst qualities imaginable, among them arrogance, sadism and contempt for the lives of others.

It is, in short, to cultivate the attitudes and beliefs and habits of mind that lead too many American police officers to beat and choke and shock and shoot at a moment’s notice, with no regard for either the citizens or the communitie­s we’re told they’re here to serve and protect.

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