Who Will Police the Police?

Let me begin here by saying that I respect police officers, detectives, agents, and other law enforcement officers. I have some that I call close friends. And they have a tough job. A really tough job. I’ve learned that through my many years working in the criminal justice system. I continue to believe that law enforcement people have one of the hardest jobs out there. That’s evidenced by the high rates of suicide in the profession, and the incredibly high levels of stress and PTSD among law enforcement.

But I want to briefly talk about an important, if not controversial, question– who polices the police? Recently, Jeff Sessions decided to markedly limit oversight of local police in this country, which was already not that significant. That should be concerning to us all. We all hear the worst stories about police brutality and excessive use of force anecdotes, sure, but if the Department of Justice drops oversight of law enforcement abuse, then what are we supposed to do to combat this issue? Well, you won’t be surprised to know that my view is that the lawsuit is the last tool left when government abdicates its role.

And that doesn’t make me “anti-cop”. I’m not anti-cop any more than most people are “anti-lawyer.” Like any profession, legal or law enforcement, there are bad apples. And we can’t excuse the bad apples and their conduct just to prove that we value and respect law enforcement. In fact, I believe that calling those officers who engage in willful misconduct to the mat gives due credit to the men and women in blue who do their jobs, and do them well. It’s the same as me opposing lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits or abuse the legal process— they give a bad name to the ethical attorneys who strive for justice and accountability instead of greed or notoriety. They make good attorneys’ jobs harder.

We shouldn’t forget that we, as citizens, give a signed check over to law enforcement every year we pay taxes (literally, but here figuratively). But it’s not a blank check. We give them guns, batons, mace, pepper spray, handcuffs, jails and prisons… and we give them uniforms so that they will be respected and obeyed when necessary. But that doesn’t mean we give them licenses to abuse, harass, or attack us. It’s not a blank check. We need some limits on that account.

I chose the clip of this image at the top of this post deliberately.  Though it happened seven years ago, I still remember it vividly. There are many other examples, some justified and some more questionable, of police abusing their power, but this one is indefensible. Law enforcement behavior like this should provoke anger and outrage in all of us, whether or not we supported the kid protesters or their agenda. This is a good example of a “bad apple” whose arrogance and bullying need to be checked.

Sometimes it’s poor training. Sometimes it’s a lack of resources. Sometimes a lack of leadership. Sometimes all three. And sometimes it’s a bad apple. Any which way, who is going to hold them accountable?

If the Department of Justice is done checking this kind of behavior, then we need lawyers who will step up and do it if we want any meaningful balance between order and justice in our society.