Police unions and excessive force

by Walter Olson on September 3, 2014

The need for police forces isn’t going away, so what practical suggestions do libertarians have in the here and now for discouraging police resort to excessive force? Thanks to Ed Krayewski at Reason for quoting me on the subject of tackling the power of police unions, which not only protect bad actors from removal but tie the hands of well-intentioned administrators in a dozen other ways and exert political pressure against effective reform. (Other suggestions in the piece: increase use of body- and dash-cams, extend the role of civilian oversight boards, and end the Drug War; relatedly, curtail SWAT tactics and the use of other paramilitary force.)

On a perhaps not unrelated note, the Washington Post reports today on the police shooting of an unarmed suburban Washington, D.C. man in his front doorway after he refused to let police into his home following a domestic call. The fact that jumped out at me was that, a year after it happened, the Fairfax County police department is still releasing no information about the incident, not even the name of the officer who pulled the trigger. According to the Post’s account (related lawsuit), police shot kitchen contractor John Geer once but first aid did not arrive until an hour later — he bled to death — and his body remained unmoved for hours, like that of Michael Brown on the street in Ferguson, Mo. The Fairfax chief says his department is just following its own policy by not releasing the officer’s name or other information while an investigation is pending (and pending and pending) — but how that policy came to be adopted, and for whose benefit, are questions worth asking.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 BJC 09.03.14 at 9:15 am

To be fair, Virginia is a right-to-work state, and police issues here don’t always have a PBA rep comment like they do in New York, so I’m not sure unionism explains the particular opaqueness of Northern Virginia police files.

I might suspect that, NoVA being full of lawyers, the concept in local government that “transparency means more and more successful lawsuits against the government” might be a stronger reason.

2 Walter Olson 09.03.14 at 9:32 am

It would be wrong to assume that police unions necessarily lack clout in a right to work state. Fairfax has both a police union and a police association, and like other public employee groups they wield power in county politics.

3 Boblipton 09.03.14 at 10:02 am

“As Chief of Police I’m just following the policy set by the Chief of Police. I have no control.”

Bob

4 MattS 09.03.14 at 11:00 am

“so what practical suggestions do libertarians have in the here and now for discouraging police resort to excessive force?”

Eliminate qualified immunity and let LEOs be held personally liable for misconduct / rights violations.

5 C 09.03.14 at 12:16 pm

Ironically, confirming that the investigation IS ongoing by refusing to release the name, damages the investigation more than just releasing the name.

The officer knows he shot someone, and knows any official “investigators” know this. But now he knows he’s still being investigated. (Not that any of this matters. It would be rather difficult for any knowledge of the investigation to affect anything. It’s a year later. Any physical evidence from the scene or the officer has already been gathered and any statements have already been taken.)

But in fairness to the police department, the case was given to state and federal prosecutors, and they appear to be the ones to be not making a decision.

6 York VA 09.03.14 at 1:12 pm

…relax — neither the American Bar Association nor any state/local bar association has voiced the slightest objection to this widespread type of police behavior. So if our professional guardians of justice (lawyers) are totally unconcerned about this stuff– why should we amateurs be troubled at all !

Rest easy and trust in the legal profession.

7 MattS 09.03.14 at 9:59 pm

“Rest easy and trust in the legal profession.”

HaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHa

8 ras 09.03.14 at 10:06 pm

I second MattS’s suggestion, and also think that the means used to moderate its use (not too little, not too much) is where the devil would be found. Grand jury? :)

9 Stewart Peterson 09.04.14 at 12:14 am

Perhaps a suggestion for big cities, but my favorite organizational change would be to have candidates for the local police academy be nominated by the local alderman, from people who live in the ward or district, and that officer could only interact in an official capacity with civilians in that ward or district (i.e., they could be promoted to a managerial job somewhere else, dealing only with other officers, but could not be assigned to a beat elsewhere). They would still have to pass the usual tests for competency, of course (i.e., the alderman can’t just nominate his son-in-law), but the idea is to make sure that the police are well-known by people in the community, and positively regarded. It’s one of the few places where political patronage would be a positive force, IMO. (Ideally, the police could also be recalled by petition – a special election would be held, only in that ward or district, or a special ballot would be made for the next election, again only in that ward or district.)

Oh, and get rid of the toys. No tasers, no “pain rays,” no armored personnel carriers: just a gun and a nightstick. I would even say that we should get most of these guys out of their patrol cars, physically walking around and talking to people like they’re real human beings. The answer is in “soft factors” – people will start to trust the police when “the police” is Bob, the guy I know from church and see at the barbershop. That’s the way it used to be and that’s the way it can be again, once people quit thinking they can develop a technical solution to the underlying social problems that cause crime in the first place. (Bob, by the way, is also less likely to see “civilians” as a sociological “other,” less likely to think he can commit abuse with no social consequences, and much less likely to talk to people like he’s God when he has to deal with them productively while off-duty.)

Many places had this social arrangement in the 50s, so what went wrong? Well, the minorities in these places – whatever they were, racial, ideological, religious, cultural – tended not to be trusted by the group-consensus of the community. Minorities were legitimately on the other end of a *ton* of abuse and were routinely blamed for things they didn’t do, so it’s no surprise they came to see the police as yet another instrument of the social and political agenda of abusing minorities which was being carried out by the local and state governments. (Spoiler alert: it was.) At that time, the Democratic Party was the more successful big-city party precisely because every up-and-coming potentially-revolutionary cultural-minority group was picked up by Democratic field people and brought into the “big tent.” Consequently, the police-as-political-arm model failed when the (generally Democratic) local governments that were directly in charge of the police departments didn’t keep their political antennae up, being judgmental about the minorities rather than trying to bring them into the system. The solution was to bureaucratize the response: the idea that a technocracy of police, rather than a police-as-political-arm, would be “fair.” We all know how that turned out.

Basically, any time there’s straight majority rule, there’s going to be a disaffected minority that distrusts the government and onto whom will be poured the majority’s wrath, via the police power of the state and any other power the majority wishes to vote to itself. That brings me to my “proportional representation in municipal elections” idea, which will work great up until a permanent majority party figures out that they can change it back to winner-take-all and the minority can’t complain effectively – which itself argues for local constitutions that can only be amended by (given the large majorities for one side or the other that occur in most places) 80%-90% of the vote. But I’m getting a bit off-topic. :-)

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