Police accountiblity requires a system we can trust

I don’t envy the police. Law enforcement officers have one of the hardest jobs out there. We ask them to keep out cities safe, to solve and prevent crimes, to resolve private disputes and to rush to the scene of danger when others are rushing away from it. They go to work knowing that any routine traffic stop could be their last. Solving crimes often means talking to people who lie to their faces. We ask them to deal with the worst of our society and then to comport victims with compassion, all on the same shift.

People seldom interact with police for positive reasons. When’s the last time you called a police officer just to tell him you were having a good day? We only call upon them when we need something, often at the lowest point of our lives, and they are quick to answer. Maybe you call the police department after being robbed or for roadside assistance on the side of a highway in a state you’ve never been in. Maybe to help you find your missing child or to recover your stolen property.

Being a police officer is hard. It’s a demanding job. It’s often a thankless job. It takes a special type of person to want to do the job, let alone to succeed at it. And it’s an important job.

It’s an awesome job. Think about what being a police officer means: it means you have been trusted by the government to protect and serve its people. It means being given the right to enforce its laws, to deprive people of their liberty and their property, and to carry a weapon and to use it if necessary it its name.  Police officers literally have the ability to take away another’s freedom or even their life. That is huge.

The power to the above things is what separates law enforcement officers from mall cops. Public law enforcement officers get their power from city, county, state or federal governments. They are employed by the government for the use of the government to serve its people. That’s not just an awesome job, but an awesome responsibility.

Which is why it should come with a serious amount of accountability.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see police held to a high standard. Citizens should want to see police held to a high standard. You can want this standard enforced while still supporting and appreciating the hard work of police officers. Holding officers accountable to a high standard is the only thing that keeps us from living in a police state in a world where we as individuals must prove our innocents on a daily bases.

Our country was founded on the principal of a limited government. The Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, was written to limit the power and reach of the government, not the power of its people. It was written by people who had lived under the rule of a tyrant, people who took efforts to ensure history would not be repeating itself within their new country’s borders.

The Bill of Rights was literally written from experience. Each and every right included in it, rights that the framers wanted to ensure were specifically carved out for the protection of its citizens, was the direct result of life under the King of England.

The founding fathers didn’t like being forced to house Soldiers in their homes, so they added the Third Amendment to be sure they wouldn’t have to. They wanted the right to speak out against their leaders and still keep their heads, so they included the First Amendment. They didn’t like living in a society where someone could be accused of a crime without the ability to challenge that person’s story in an open court, so the Sixth Amendment was also included. The Fourth Amendment indicates their feelings towards privacy from the government.

Each and every time the government, acting through its police force, violates one of these rights, they violate the principals this country was founded on. Each and every time that we the people let them get away with such an act, we weaken freedom.

We redefine freedom by our inability to act and to hold our police officers and government officials accountable for their actions. We redefine it by reducing its meaning.

Again, citizens should want a high standard of police accountability. We should want to be able to trust and know that our fellow citizens charged with maintaining law and order in our society aren’t doing so by taking away the rights of others in the process. If police take away the rights of others and we do nothing, it’s only a matter of time until our own rights are stripped away as well.

We trust the police to carry a weapon and to kill for their safety. We need to be able to trust that they are using that responsibility responsibly. We can’t expect our officers to get it right each and every time, but we can expect them to get nothing but the best training to help ensure that they do. When they are wrong, we should be able to trust that they will be held accountable. For that to happen, we need an investigating system that produces results that we can trust.

The current system leaves a lot to be desired. Imagine being a parent and coming home from work one day and as you walk into your living room you notice a gallon of milk spilled all over the carpet. There are a number of ways that you could react to this situation, but one of them wouldn’t be to call all your kids into the living room and appoint two of them to investigate the situation and to report their conclusions back to you.

“Guess what, Mom? Our investigation shows that we are none of us are responsible for this event.”

But this is essentially what happens when police officers investigate charges of officer misconduct internally. Police forces are small agencies where officers are likely to spend their entire careers. Should we really expect police officers to reach honest conclusions against their co-workers, friends, and the people who either have or will have the ability to affect their future careers? Maybe there are some officers who can, but doing so requires them to overcome a lot of their personal bias to do so. It’d be far easier to have an outside agency do the investigation, where the investigators aren’t worried about protecting their friends, friendships or promotion prospects.

Letting local prosecutors make prosecuting decisions regarding local police officers is highly problematic.  Prosecutors and police officers are on the same team. They have the same overall objective: to win the war on crime. They are a lot like the Air Force and the Army in that they have different roles on the battlefield but work together to secure victory.

Prosecutors rely on local police to do their jobs. They are often their chief witnesses. They work closely together and on a daily basis. This relationship makes it very difficult for them to review facts in the same mindset that they do for the strangers that the same police officers arrest.

“What’s this case about? Oh yeah, Bob was investigated. Let me forget about the 17 times he’s testified in one of my cases the past year, including last month when he was a key witness in putting away a harden criminal for a long time, and make an honest determination of what I should do here.”

The military has already reached these conclusions by having the Inspector General and Judge Advocates answer to a separate command than the one they are working for. This lets the IG get to the bottom of incidents without worrying that what he uncovers will affect his next job assignment. It lets the JAG officer give candid advice to a commander instead of telling that commander what he wants to hear so that she can get a good performance evaluation.

If the events of the past few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that if people don’t trust one cop, they don’t trust any cops. This should bother police officers, who should also want to see high standards of accountability across the force to protect and honor the good work they do accomplish. It doesn’t do any good for a police officer to be cleared of wrongdoing if the public doesn’t trust the system that cleared him.

Police work is hard. We know it’s hard. That’s why it’s important that it’s done right and to a high standard. But police can only be held to a high standard if there is a system in place that ensures they are held accountable for their actions, not given a free pass.