The Prescription

In all of the demonstrations, riots, editorials, op-eds, blog posts, and general outrage against first the grand jury decision in Ferguson and then the grand jury decision in New York, I still have yet to see a prescription that would have prevented the deaths of the two men at the hands of police officers that spurred all of the outrage to begin with.

The decision in the case of the death of Eric Garner in New York throws cold water on one prescription, a prescription endorsed by the White House, to have police officers carry body cameras. Mr. Garner’s death was videoed. The experience in New Orleans whose police force has been equipt with body cameras for some time now should be enough to call that particular prescription into question. Remarkably, in many cases there in which police use of force has been questioned, the cameras have malfunctioned.

In my view the most likely benefit that police body cameras will convey will be to the vendors of body cameras.

Chicago has had what is referred to as an “independent civilian review board” that investigated the use of force by Chicago’s police for some time. The board is dominated by former police officers and tends to rubberstamp the police versions of incidents. I believe that will inevitably be the case for all such boards for institutional reasons. It’s no solution.

There is an old dictum in the law that goes back at least 150 years and probably much farther: hard cases make bad law. The killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are both hard cases but for different reasons. The circumstances of Michael Brown’s shooting by a police officer are contested and the claims of those who say that Mr. Brown was murdered by a police officer are not supported by forensic evidence.

In the case of the death of Eric Garner, if I understand New York law correctly, to have supported the charge of manslaughter against the police officer who killed him the grand jury would have had to determine that the police officer’s actions were either intentional or reckless. The grand jury couldn’t support either finding.

The only prescription I can think of that would have categorically resulted in different outcomes in both of these cases is if all homicides or at least all police homicides were prosecuted as crimes. I don’t think that would increase the total amount of justice in the world.

Finding causes about which to be outraged is easy. Identifying effective solutions is hard. The frequent retort of “Well, it’s a start” can be used to justify an infinite stream of ineffective strategies and every policy has its own unforeseen secondary effects.

9 comments… add one
  • TastyBits Link

    The incidents that involve cops mistaking combs, wallets, cellphones, etc. for guns and knives should be treated as if they were civilians. Can the gangbanger claim they thought the rival gang member’s cellphone was a gun? Why are police with more training held to a lower standard?

    The cases where people refuse to cooperate are different. The incident may have been initiated incompetently, but unless the person’s life is in danger, they must comply.

    Law enforcement officers should be personally responsible for any civil suits brought against them, and they should not be able to use bankruptcy to discharge them. The civil courts have lower standards than the criminal courts.

  • I agree with everything you wrote in that comment, TB. I would also add that I think that allowing civil rights suits against cities to proceed in cases in which police officers have violated express policies (one of which I suspect will be forthcoming shortly in New York) has been a grave error.

  • TastyBits Link

    When I worked for the Sheriff’s Office, we were taught Civil Rights covered a lot more than race, and and acting under the color of law was an additional element. I know the inmates were suing the Sheriff and Deputies all the time. (The Sheriff arranged for the federal judge to come to the prison every two weeks.)

    Any complaints to Internal Affairs by civilians were taken very seriously. Civilians were strictly off limits. Criminals were another matter.

  • steve Link

    People who have no accountability will behave that way. All police homicides should be investigated by non-local police and the cases should be handled by attorneys who do not have ties to the local force. That would be a start.Next, there should be more uniform training. Combine those dinky forces and get better trained forces. Train those existing forces on how to avoid killing people. (If they just let Garner sit up he probably lives.) If hiring ex-military is causing more militarization (I sort of doubt it) then stop giving ex-military an edge in hiring. Set standards on what offenses merit aggressive arrests.

    Last of all, maybe we have special courts for police homicides, one where there is some kind of transparency.


  • ... Link

    All police homicides should be investigated by non-local police….

    We have that in Florida already. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigates all such shootings. Based on results I’ve followed, it largely rubber stamps the local police reports.

    A seperate court system is interesting. I prpresumet would function in a similar fashion to military courts – sign up for the job, sign up for the requisite legal system. Not sure how it could work to have independence & transparency, though.

  • ... Link

    WTF is autocorrect doing?

    “I presume it….”

  • The only thing that comes to mind is to have cooperative agreements among the states that a police shooting in State X will be investigated by a prosecutor and support from State Y.

  • ... Link

    That only sounds logistically feasible for the dinky NE states, or maybe the upper Midwest.

  • Basically, what you’re describing is what a federal government is supposed to be for. Federalizing these investigations is the argument that Eric Holder is making.

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