An Ohio grand jury’s refusal last week to indict Cleveland police officers in the 2014 shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice will no doubt fuel more calls for drastic changes in America’s criminal justice system.
The heartbreaking toy-gun case is the latest reminder that our laws and processes seldom deem cops guilty of crimes when their line-of-duty actions turn deadly. It comes on top of a recent Baltimore hung jury in the first trial concerning Freddie Gray’s in-custody death, and another non-indictment in another in-custody death, that of Sandra Bland in Texas.
But what these and similar painful controversies really should inspire, especially among policymakers, is recognition that responsible change would be more feasible and more beneficial if aimed at the everyday disciplinary system for cops — which should be weeding out officers who lack the steadiness and character needed to prevent officer-involved tragedies. When they can be prevented, that is.
Avoidable bloodshed certainly occurs, though not all of the incendiary incidents stirring passions in recent months and years could have been helped.
It is always going to be difficult for the law — and for the prosecutors, jurors and judges applying it — to find criminal intent in the split-second decisions cops must make while doing their duty and exposing themselves to chaotic life-and-death emergencies on the public’s behalf. Better we should concentrate on judging cops’ mettle through their decisions in calmer situations, in hopes of ensuring that only the very best ever represent the public in a crisis, wielding its monopoly on force.
In late November, faced with the release of “staggering” video documenting a seemingly unexplainable police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in their city, the Chicago Tribune editorial board confronted this reality in an anguished piece republished on startribune.com.
“This isn’t about a stunning, isolated event,” the Chicago editorialists wrote. “[I]t’s about Chicago’s long-standing failure to deal effectively with rogue police officers.”
They didn’t mean only their rough town’s failure to intervene in and prosecute spectacular cases of police criminality and violence. “[T]he city,” they wrote, “also has a poor record for dealing with everyday allegations of police misconduct, from unprofessional behavior to unnecessary force.”
The disciplinary “process is ... hamstrung by union rules about how complaints are investigated and appealed,” the editorial added — rules and protections that keep problem cops on the force too long. “‘We don’t have at-will employees, and we can’t just fire them as people expect,’” the editorial quoted then-Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy as explaining.
McCarthy, who enjoyed no similar job security, was cashiered days later. He may well have deserved it. But he was like most police department leaders in America, too often finding himself “hamstrung” when trying to rid his force of cops who lack the exceptional judgment and self-control we need in police officers — or even to inspire change in those who go astray in smaller ways.
It’s necessary to say in an article like this that the vast majority of cops are in fact men and women of outstanding character and courage. Also, Minneapolis is not Chicago — not in its crime rate, the severity of its police abuses or its bare-fisted power politics. Problems here may not even equal those of Baltimore, Cleveland or Texas.
But the Jamar Clark case, and the protest movement it’s produced, have brought the same kind of demands that we make “justice” more likely for cops who use deadly force — by discarding the grand jury process in police violence cases, employing special prosecutors and otherwise altering the criminal justice system’s “business as usual,” as U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison put it in a recent commentary in these pages.
Whether such measures are likely, or would much change the probability of convicting cops involved in fatal confrontations, real justice might be better served by doing everything possible to ensure that only the finest truly are protecting and serving our communities.
Trouble is, officials in Minnesota, as in Chicago and elsewhere, are too often “hamstrung by union rules about how complaints are investigated and appealed,” as the Chicago Tribune put it. It’s not that cops are never fired or disciplined; they are. But one never needs to look far for recent and at least debatable cases where labor arbitrators have overruled departments trying to discipline errant officers. To wit:
• In September, an arbitrator overturned the firing of a Wright County sheriff’s deputy who had been discharged for violating policy by conducting a romantic affair with a known felon — a man convicted on prostitution charges, sporting an “extensive” nonviolent criminal record, and currently under investigation — and for being “less than forthcoming” about it all. The arbitrator, encouraged that the deputy was now seeking counseling to deal with her stress issues, saw no sufficient reason to lose confidence in her as a law enforcement officer.
• In November, an arbitrator heard an appeal from a Newport police officer suspended for 10 days after surveillance video showed him improperly entering the city administrator’s locked office after hours. The arbitrator essentially found in favor of the city on every factual point, and rejected the officer’s attempt to argue that the incriminating surveillance video was unconstitutional and inadmissible — the sort of defense one expects from a crook, not a cop.
But then, for unexplained reasons, the arbitrator cut the officer’s suspension in half, to just five days.
These are merely the most recent, unremarkable examples; many similar and many more extreme cases are on file. If Minnesota policymakers were serious about wanting to remove or reform our communities’ few bad or ill-suited cops and thereby head off abuses and tragedies on our streets where it is possible, they would think about changing this long-standing system of routine second-guessing of disciplinary decisions in law enforcement — which, as noted, exists in various forms across the country.
They’d replace it with a system that errs on the side of protecting the public and holding all cops to the often-discussed “higher standard” that, in fact, the vast majority of them meet.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.