Sean Gormley claims that cops who break the law should be treated just like everybody else (“Police officers who break the law do face consequences,” Oct. 6). He’s right. They should.
In support of this statement, he says, “In America, people accused of crimes have a right to due process. Police officers are no exception.” Right again. But he left some stuff out.
The first thing he neglects to mention is that when cops commit crimes, they’re entitled to a second level of due process, involving their employment, that most of the rest of us don’t enjoy.
Due process involves being given notice of what you’ve done wrong, an opportunity to defend yourself, and a guarantee that whatever is decided about you will be based on law and justice. If I’m charged with the crime of domestic assault, for instance, I’m entitled to a jury trial and all of the due-process rights that go along with having one. So is the cop. But there’s more to it than that.
Let’s say that the cop and I have identical cases. We both go to trial, and we both lose.
Now, let’s say I’m an at-will employee of a business. Unlike the cop, I’ve never sworn an oath to uphold the law and then turned around and violated it. But after I’m convicted, or maybe before, my boss fires me. I have no due-process right to a hearing to contest being fired. I can, if I choose, try to sue my employer at my own expense. But I won’t, because having been found guilty I have no chance of winning and I most likely can’t afford it.
The cop, on the other hand, calls Gormley at the police union, or Lt. Bob Kroll if he’s a Minneapolis cop, and an elaborate disciplinary process, which costs the cop nothing except his union dues, begins.
All too often, this process has led to bad cops being reinstated or retained on their jobs, thanks to labor concessions negotiated by police unions that the rest of us could only dream of having.
The recent Star Tribune series on police discipline (“Shielded by the badge,” Oct. 1-4) amply documents how hard it is to get rid of bad cops and how often getting rid of them is not even attempted.
In sum, cops don’t get equal treatment on the due-process front. They get better treatment. It baffles me why people who violate the law while being tasked with making the rest of us obey it should get this second shot of due process — or how people like Gormley can claim that cops who have this benefit are somehow misunderstood victims.
Gormley also offers the premise that “[o]ur society and our justice system are based on the notion that when a person is convicted of a crime, that individual should pay an appropriate debt to society ... [and] be given an opportunity to return to normal life.”
Our society and our criminal-justice system are based on no such notion. Not anymore. That idea went out the door with the war on drugs and arguably was never true for people of color.
The minute a criminal or traffic charge is filed against an adult, that charge becomes public record, and its mere existence is available to prospective employers, prospective landlords, military recruiters, employment licensing agencies and anybody else who wants to — or is required to — run a background check on applicants. And check they do.
Ask a 19-year-old who has shoplifted a tube of lipstick from a big-box store and now wants to make a career in retail whether paying the criminal penalty for the shoplifting has allowed her to return to normal life. Maybe in a full-employment economy, where a retailer has to lower its standards to attract employees, someone might take a chance on her. But as a Hennepin County public defender who finished my career in the years right after the 2008 housing bubble burst, I had to tell that 19-year-old that she might never be able to get a job in retail, even if I got her case dropped.
In this unforgiving world we live in, why should a cop who breaks a law he’s sworn to uphold expect anything better?
Richard G. Carlson, of Minneapolis, is a retired assistant public defender.