Confronted with a deepening distrust and hostility from the communities they are sworn to serve and protect, police officers cannot adequately perform their jobs without the public’s confidence and support. As videos continue to emerge of cops violating the law and killing unarmed suspects, the rift between the police and the public continues to widen with each passing day. By examining economic, racial, and judicial factors, the public can determine how to improve their police departments without waiting for the Justice Department to step in and institute another series of ineffective reforms.
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the American public became accustomed to watching police officers viciously beating and denigrating unarmed black people. After a few decades, these images faded from the public’s consciousness as many cops continued committing brutal crimes off-camera. But in 1991, the video of the Rodney King beating reminded the public of the festering racial tensions within American society.
Marred with a history of racism, many police departments continue to implement racial discrimination while repeatedly violating civil rights. During the 1920s, members of the Ku Klux Klan infiltrated police departments and local government positions in Los Angeles. After reports of Klan-related beatings, home invasions, shootings, and lynchings reached the district attorney’s office, Sheriff William Taeger and LAPD Chief Louis D. Oaks publicly resigned from the KKK amidst investigations into their departments.
Between 1972 and 1991, Chicago Police Department Detective Jon Burge and his men tortured over 200 black men in order to obtain false confessions. As recently as March 24, 2013, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow issued a decision that found Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his office in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And earlier this year on March 4, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report revealing systemic racism throughout the Ferguson Police Department.
“As detailed in our report, this investigation found a community that was deeply polarized, and where deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents,” stated then-Attorney General Eric Holder. “Our investigation showed that Ferguson police officers routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force against them.”
In order to generate revenue for the city, Ferguson police officers routinely engaged in contests to impose the highest number of abusive and unlawful fines on black residents. Civil asset forfeiture laws have allowed police departments across the country to confiscate hundreds of millions of dollars from Americans without even proving a crime has occurred. While alleviating their budgets by fining their citizens and confiscating their assets, police departments also receive Pentagon-issued assault rifles, grenade launchers, and Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles donated free of charge as part of the Defense Department’s 1033 Program.
According to the U.S. Supreme Court, police officers can pull over people without a legal justification, may strip-search individuals even if there's no reason to suspect that person is carrying contraband, and are not responsible for stopping crimes in progress. In Heien v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court ruled that an officer’s ignorance of the law does not prevent the officer from pulling over people without a legal justification. In Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, the Court held that officers may strip-search people who have been arrested for any crime before admitting the individuals to jail, even if there is no reason to suspect that person is carrying contraband.
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And in Castle Rock v. Gonzales, the Supreme Court ruled that the police do not have a constitutional duty to protect people from harm. During divorce proceedings in June 1999, Jessica Gonzales placed a restraining order on her violent husband, Simon Gonzales. A few weeks later, Simon kidnapped their three daughters, ages seven to ten. Jessica repeatedly contacted the police to report the kidnapping and have Simon arrested, but the Castle Rock police refused to take action. A few hours later, Simon arrived at the police station and died in a shootout with officers. His vehicle contained the dead bodies of his daughters.
A recent HuffPost article suggested running police stations like fire departments. Instead of actively patrolling the streets and conducting traffic stops, police officers would wait at the station until receiving an emergency call. An inherent flaw in this argument is that fires are stationary, while criminals have the ability to escape before police respond to the scene.
Instead of issuing abusive fines, participating in asset forfeiture, and accepting military-grade equipment from the Defense Department, police departments need to make a stronger effort to reestablish trust and confidence in their communities. Previous generations recall a time when they knew the names of the officers patrolling their neighborhoods while helping anyone in need. Today, cops pull their guns on innocent people pointing a camera at them.
In response to the public outcry against NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner with a chokehold, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order No. 147, which assigns a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute the deaths of civilians caused by law enforcement officers. Due to the fact that district attorneys often work closely with local police departments, Gov. Cuomo recently ordered New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to step in and investigate the death of a woman in police custody.
Although police body cams, dash cams, and civilian cell phone footage have discredited numerous officers’ accounts, the Eric Garner case proves that the presence of a camera does not guarantee justice. As police departments continue to fight against transparency while falsifying crime stats, including labeling rapes as assaults in order to improve their numbers, the public continues to lose faith in those sworn to serve and protect them. People in low-income neighborhoods refuse to cooperate with the police because law enforcement has failed to protect them on far too many occasions.
Instead of running police department like fire departments, the public requires a police department that has their best interests at heart. The Supreme Court needs to stop placing unconstitutional powers into the hands of officers. The Pentagon needs to stop providing military-grade equipment and weapons to police departments that often lose or report those items stolen. And officers need to respect the racial and economic tensions that are putting them at risk while being held accountable for any crimes they commit.
To hold officers accountable, the public could call for judges to impose harsher sentences for corrupt cops and their co-conspirators. To regain the public’s trust, officers could participate in de-escalation training and medical training. Too many videos show cops callously standing over people bleeding out instead of offering basic medical attention.
By rebuilding the public’s confidence, police departments would no longer rely on hefty municipal fines and seized assets to bolster their budgets. With faith in their police departments restored, people might actually be willing to pay higher taxes to support local law enforcement. But as prices increase and wages remain stagnant, the American public currently cannot afford another tax increase.
Since the Department of Defense is in such a generous mood, perhaps the public can vote to allocate some of the DOD’s overinflated budget into local law enforcement. But only on the stipulation that the police departments cease abusing our civil rights and confiscating our assets.