By Christopher D. Pagán, Esq.
Over the last few years, there have been a number of polarizing cases arising out of interactions between law enforcement and civilians. Due to the frequency and seriousness of these interactions, the general public’s trust of law enforcement has been steadily declining. Given the availability of affordable technology and the positive results of a study conducted in California, it is time that the law enforcement’s “good apples” stop hiding behind the “code” and do the right thing by mandating body cameras so the “bad apples” can be more easily removed from the barrel.
Just this past week, a disturbing video was made public showing part of an altercation between a South Carolina Officer Michael Slager and civilian Walter Scott. What began as a traffic stop rapidly escalated into a foot chase and then into what can only be described as the assassination of an unarmed civilian by an officer. Although the investigation is still open, since the release of the video, Officer Slager has been arrested and charged with the murder of Walter Scott. This is only the latest in a flurry of videos depicting polarizing police behavior. Clearly, there are “bad apples” in law enforcement, just like any profession. The point of this article is not to insinuate that all law enforcement personnel would have acted as Officer Slager did or would condone his behavior. However, unique to law enforcement is the authority and trust to do the right thing, while at the same time refusing any oversight by an independent review board.
What has the public most concerned is law enforcement often reacts to confrontations with immediate, and often lethal violence when it is seemingly avoidable. It appears from a cursory glance of social media and after speaking with numerous law enforcement officials here in Miami, FL that those in law enforcement almost blindly justify the actions of whichever case is being discussed. The response seems always to be a mixture of “blue code” and the rehearsed, automatic response that police officers’ jobs are inherently dangerous and danger is around every corner. However, after video was released of Walter Scott’s murder, it appears this is the first example where law enforcement will be forced to acknowledge that one of its own likely exceeded the bounds of responsible police work.
What it represents is possibly a greater problem where law enforcement is quick to respond with force, and in these examples lethal force, when the situation does not justify it. Given these most recent events over the last year or so, a reasonable person must be wondering “are the police really protecting and serving?” Does the statement that police officers are in more danger than the average citizen because of their occupation carry any weight?
The dilemma is a difficult one to discuss intelligently because of the lack of reliable information, on a national scale, about police-involved shootings because they are self-reported and investigated internally. That is exactly why some are calling for Congress to mandate the 18,000 police departments in the country report to the public or Justice Department everything involving police shootings. However, the government does maintain records showing the number of police officers killed while in uniform. The numbers show that in 2010, 122 officers died on the job, from a variety of causes. And in 2011, 173 officers died. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which does not indicate the cause of death, the number of officer deaths were 127 in 2012, 102 in 2013, and 126 in 2014.
Although we do not have accurate numbers on the number of officers killed by civilians as opposed to other causes, it appears that since at least 2010, the numbers remain consistent. However, it has been well documented that law enforcement is not the most dangerous occupation in America. In fact, it did not even break the top 10 most dangerous jobs by death rate per 100,000 employed. Among the jobs more inherently dangerous are logging workers, fishermen, aircraft pilots, truck drivers, and construction workers.
Often I hear, “have you ever executed an arrest or search warrant? It is very dangerous!” I agree that these types of police activity are dangerous, but I also put some of the onus on police strategy. If serving a warrant inside a home of a possibly armed and dangerous suspect is so dangerous, why not wait until the person is leaving their home to execute the warrant? Why must the police go into a dangerous situation, when they could simply avoid it and still achieve their ultimate objective (which should be apprehension of the suspect and preserving the integrity of any evidence that may exist within the residence)? We have already seen a shift in police procedure involving car chases. Most departments now disengage and wait for a safe time to make an arrest. This was a change brought about by the obvious perils to civilians and law enforcement officials themselves of using their vehicles to pursue suspects at a high rate of speed on public roadways. However, this still begs the question, “Are police involved homicides actually on the rise?”
When compared to deaths of officers while on duty, it is undeniable the police kill, justifiably or not, almost four times as many civilians. According to the 2013 Crime in the United States Publication, released by the FBI, there were an average of 420 justifiable homicides by law-enforcement between the years of 2009 and 2013. And by the way, these homicides are deemed “justifiable” by the actual police agency itself or other local law enforcement agencies that work together with the department being investigated. What sense does it make to allow the very agency being investigated to determine whether its own acted illegally? This is as counterintuitive as asking a panel of gang members to sit as jurors on a case against a fellow gang member. And what can be done about these numbers and the increasing distrust of law enforcement by the very citizens they swore to protect?
When there is a breakdown in trust, the quickest solution is transparency and oversight. Many have proposed there should be civilian oversight of law enforcement, but this remains a sticking point with law enforcement. There seems to be a consensus among law enforcement that they are to be trusted blindly and should not be subject to review by any civilian group. An example of this is all police-involved shootings are investigated by fellow law enforcement agencies on the local level. This begs the question “isn’t trust a two-way street?” The short answer should be “no.” The solution rests with Congress. Why not have independent, civilian review boards for police-involved shootings, internal affairs complaints, and also for reliable data collection? There really is no justifiable reason for law enforcement agencies to police their own.
But perhaps the most controversial proposed solution is the most obvious: that Congress mandate the use of body cameras by all law enforcement personnel. At a minimum, this would allow for more reliable evidence about each incident on an individual basis. The only reason this solution is controversial is because law enforcement agencies have consistently opposed it. Often, the fall back reasoning is there is no room in the budget to fund such a change in policy. However, law enforcement agencies have spent freely when the money is for technology that would intrude on the privacy of civilians. How much money has been spent on infrared technology for narcotics investigations, tanks for riot control, and of course, speed guns and red light cameras that most of us are all too familiar with? Ironically, the reluctance to consider body cameras causes many to have same reaction that most do when a criminal defendant invokes their 5th Amendment right to silence: “Why? Do you have something to hide?” After all, had it not been for the video footage taken by a civilian bystander, it is likely that there would not have been enough evidence to charge Officer Slager with the murder of Mr. Scott.
More importantly, a recent studio has shown the positive effects of having body cams on police officers. The Journal of Quantitative Criminology just published the results of a study conducted in California. During the course of the 12-month trial period, the study required a department in California to outfit its officers with HD cameras capable of capturing everthing from the officer’s point of view. During the study, “use of force” incidents were down approximately 50 percent. Citizen complaints in the jurisdiction also fell an astounding 90 percent from the year before. Clearly, body cameras will not solve all problems. But this study shows us there is a lot of potential benefit to implementation of a similar mandate across the nation’s law enforcement agencies.
At the end of the day, law enforcement agencies have a major PR issue and now a lack of trust in the general community. Both sides agree that there is nothing productive about having a society of civilians who distrust those who are trusted to be protecting them. The only questions that remain are which solutions can both sides agree will have a positive effect on the existing problem. At some point, law enforcement agencies will have to acknowledge that there may be a better way(s) to ensure their personnel are held accountable for their own criminal behavior. An option available now and financially feasible is the body camera. This is likely the only hope for law enforcement to regain the general public’s trust. But for that to happen, the “good apples” we all keep hearing about need to step up to the plate and stop hiding behind the “blue code.”
If you have been accused of a crime, contact experienced Miami criminal attorney Christopher D. Pagán of Pagan & Stroleny, P.L. Our criminal defense firm is dedicated to fighting charges throughout Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and South Florida. Visit our page at http://www.pslaw.org/ or call Pagan & Stroleny, P.L. today for your free consultation at (305) 615-1285.