Deputy News Editor
Ohioan Jordan Hunter examines he believes the policing model in America can be fixed, and what’s preventing it from succeeding
I think it’s obvious there is a problem with policing in America. While I’ll never know what it’s like to be a minority and what their interactions with police are truly like, I know that it’s a problem. Growing up in a small town in Ohio, I was raised to never fear the police, and I never imagined any reason not to trust them. That was until John Crawford III was shot in my grocery store. I remember seeing groups of people protesting and holding vigils in the beginning days of Black Lives Matter. I realised that policing isn’t a distant problem, but one that every black and minority person deals with and fears every day in every American city.
But how do we actually obtain justice? I think there are multiple issues that are valid and contribute to the problems minorities face, such as sentencing reform and prison reform, but these I feel fall short of preventing shootings. Some say that it’s militarisation of police, which is true of accidental shootings in swat raids and “no-knock warrants”, and according to the Cato Institute has led to over 40 deaths. But more often than not it comes down to just a single officer with a gun, their hands, or even their knee. I think it’s impossible to try to get rid of guns, as America has a high presence of guns that aren’t going away soon, making guns an essential part of the job. Beyond that, recent events with deaths of Eric Garner and George Floyd prove that they don’t even need a gun to kill people.
So what is the solution then? I think the best we can do is try to improve accountability. Accountability, while may only inflict consequences after the fact, could continuingly pre-emptively weigh on the minds of every cop and police department. There are many ways to do this and many ways the system prohibits these changes from happening. Firstly, there’s the body camera issue. While body cameras are becoming standard issue, the actual application of them has been poor. In many states the camera footage is considered “not in the public interest”, thereby restricting their use in public judgements. There often is little legislation requiring them to be on and recording at all times. Many of the cameras that are in the field only record the 15 seconds prior to when an officer presses a button, and that assumes the officer presses it at all. The cameras thus far have mostly been seen as a burdensome cost with little results, but longer recording cameras do exist and are available. I’ve heard activists object, claiming cameras just pump money into police departments and that often that money is misused, which is true of the 2015 DOJ grants for such cameras. However, states could easily just require departments to specifically purchase these cameras or levy punishments for officers who do not decide to record, in addition to making all camera footage public record. Unfortunately, what stops all of this is states and the federal government just saying we spent millions on the old ones and nothing came of it, spending more goes nowhere. Plus, any legislation would likely be fought against by police unions, which Democrats and Republicans both actually rely on for support.
Another way to ensure accountability is by taking cases out of district attorneys (DA) hands. The largest problem for the Ahmaud Arbery case, admittedly not a cop killing but relevant, was the fact that there had been prior relations with the local prosecutor or district attorney. They ended up going through multiple DAs and only after public pressure relinquished it to the state’s attorney general (AG). There often are statutes that allow states’ attornies general to take over cases, but often only on the invitation of the local DAs. You would think that clear conflicts of interest would be in the best interest of all parties to relinquish it to more AG offices, but more often than not, the DA is motivated to keep cases. DAs are mostly elected and build their reputation via name recognition from big cases and support of the local police unions. DAs like to show they are effective and get results, so shelling cases out of local towns looks bad to voters and may hurt relationships with police who they have to work with. This motivation is why a DA tried a black man, named Curtis Flowers, six times for murder with only circumstantial evidence. The DA proceeded to deliberately pack juries with almost exclusively white people. DAs have the tools to rig the game and they don’t want to give up that power. DAs also have a strong influence in local politics making it hard to legislate. Public pressure in the Arbery and Floyd case is what it took to get the AG office. Pushing DA offices to hand over cases is the best option.
The final way we can achieve justice is through court repercussions both civilly and criminally. Cops when under criminal charges face protection not only from the DA but also the precedent that has been set. Ever since the supreme court decision, Graham v. Connor, police misconduct is judged by “a reasonable standard”, meaning courts decide whether or not there was misconduct based upon what is reasonable. While it might, in theory, sound fair or “reasonable”, the legal interpretation is not what the public defines as reasonable but rather what is reasonable for a police officer. In theory, whilst a hypothetical killing would be unreasonable to you and me, it could be reasonable for a cop and thus would be cleared. The other precedent that’s harmful is qualified immunity. Qualified immunity effectively means that no officer or department can be sued so long as what they did was in the service of their profession. This is why police can destroy houses and shoot children without compensation. This is why more often than not people abused by the police choose to sue cities, which often means very little since cities often are underfunded and simply just ignore suits – such is the case in East Cleveland which has a stack of lawsuits yet to be paid totalling over $50 million. So what can we do? Well, most of this isn’t created by law, just simple judicial interpretation, which the supreme court can overrule. The good thing is the supreme court has a few cases available next cycle that could establish this new precedent, but unlike every other issue, there is a simpler solution. Federal laws could easily apply and lawmakers Justin Amash-L and Ilhan Omar-D have already put forward a bill to end qualified immunity. Pushing Congress to act to create a new reasonable standard is possible.
The bad news is the cards are stacked against justice and the most meaningful change toward accountability is a game of whack-a-mole. Most changes have to come at the local level and pressure of local officials makes the movement both global and local, making equality a constant battle.