On the heels of the most recent incident of blatant police brutality in Michigan (see video above), I had to share some of my thoughts on the matter.
As a criminal defense attorney in Phoenix, AZ, I come across police brutality cases often enough to be upset at the state of the nation in 2016. How many more people need to die before America admits it has a problem?
Though there is some movement from the White House and within local departments to do something about police brutality, cases continue to splash across headlines. Fueled by quotas, lack of training, and increased militarization, cases of police brutality have exploded nationwide.
PRESSURE ON POLICE LEADS TO AGGRESSIVENESS
One probable cause for the increase in aggressive policing is the quota. While quotas are technically illegal in New York City, officers have monthly goals they need to meet. Cops who don’t meet these goals are at risk of being denied vacation or having a poor review. In view of a recent lawsuit, Officer Sandy Gonzalez admits that he got a failing grade on an important review because he did not meet his (illegal) quota that month.
From my own experience, I have had officers in cases admit to keeping stats on their arrests and which of those end up with a conviction. Unfortunately, some officers get so caught up in their stats that they are willing to bend the rules to keep their stats intact. When I was a prosecutor I didn’t believe this really happened, but in hindsight I recall officers who seemed willing to bend their testimony to fit the facts that would best help get a conviction. That never sat well with me and it is a big part of the reason why I am a criminal defense attorney now instead.
Aggressive policing can lead directly to police brutality. In a recent police brutality case in Sacramento, a jury awarded 78-year-old Harrison Orr $125,000 after he was punched by a California Highway Patrol officer and knocked to the ground during a traffic stop. The cop who attacked Orr had been recently reprimanded for being “too soft” on drivers.
This isn’t an isolated incident. Police brutality cases are increasingly reported on. Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and Freddie Gray were all stopped for minor or moderate offenses, and all three ended up dead. The problem is in police training, which is almost wholly lacking in any real science. In Freddie Gray’s nationally publicized case, clear discrepancies between training and actual responses highlights the growing national problem of police brutality.
THE MONEY IS GOING NOWHERE
Since 1994, the Department of Justice has funneled more than 14 billion dollars to support community-based policing. However, there has been no real, defined success with this initiative. Most police officers only encounter the people of the neighborhoods they patrol when they’re investigating a crime. The cops don’t see these areas in a positive way. Research has proved that when police officers are involved in the community, they are less defensive and less negative about the individuals living there.
De-escalation training, touted by many as a solution to the problem of police brutality, is offered but rarely used. The Universal Greeting, a scripted way for officers to introduce themselves and remain calm in a tense situation, is taught in many places, but followed in few. Instead of being taught to mitigate the situation, cops are taught that they must retain control at all costs.
And many departments are still resisting the training. In Arizona, Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in the country, faces contempt of court charges for racial profiling and refusing to allow his deputies to be trained in traffic stop procedures.
AN INVADING ARMY?
The militarization of police is another worrisome trend to those concerned about police brutality. The police officers have not only been trained in military tactics, they are acquiring military-grade weapons and vehicles. In response to the recent explosion in police brutality cases, President Obama compared the police to an invading force, and vowed to limit the types of weaponry and vehicles departments can acquire. This has drawn fire from local police agencies and the Fraternal Order of Police, the most aggressive law advocacy group in Washington. Police worry this will compromise their ability to protect themselves, but Obama remains firm in his stated desire to “prohibit equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for local police departments.”
THE HUMAN COST OF POLICE BRUTALITY
Police brutality statistics are staggering, and the victims are adding up: Eric Garner, killed in New York City by officers using an illegal chokehold; 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot by police while playing with a toy gun in Cleveland, Ohio; Walter Scott, who was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop in North Charleston, South Carolina.
A recent case that did not make the news shows that police brutality is becoming all-too-common a thing. A doctor in Arizona had just gotten a new car and was driving on the freeway with his family. He was clocked going 53 in the slow lane and pulled over. The doctor told the officer that he had done nothing wrong. The officer demanded the doctor step out of his car, and beat him (in front of his family), until other officers arrived. The doctor was charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. The doctor, who was guilty of nothing except wanting to protect his family by driving responsibility, lost his job and was suspended by the medical board.
Something needs to be done. Lack of training and militarization of police are putting both the community and the officers themselves at risk. Unless sweeping changes are made externally by lawmakers and internally by police departments, the victim count will continue to grow.