At Simple Justice, Scott Greenfield points out some issues with my post on police officers being acquitted or receiving a mistrial due to a hung jury. On part of it, Scott’s correct. Juries and judges do give police officers the benefit of the doubt over your run of the mill defendant, whether the officer is on trial or testifying against your client, the defendant. That’s not the point of my post, but I’ll address it too. It’s about mindset and perception, about changing the way that the public thinks, and that doesn’t happen overnight.
The public tends to trust the police, to view them with a favorable eye. That’s natural. Police are the people you call when someone is trying to hurt you or trying to take your stuff. People tend to like the people that keep them from getting hurt or who keep their stuff from getting stolen (or who recover the property that was stolen). You’re not going to change that mindset, especially when compared to the people who are being tried for hurting other people or for stealing other people’s stuff.
Right now, the image of a cop on trial is not a common one, it’s rarely seen. That’s changing because the explosion of video is forcing the change. It allows the public to see what actually happened instead of a narrative crafted by the police, or as Scott said:
[W]ho are you going to believe, a brave, hero cop or some scumbag criminal mutt?
That’s how the public views it right now, but it’s changing. In Oakland, the voters created a new police commission to oversee the police department, a department that has been rocked with scandal after scandal. The Seattle City Council strengthened the civilian oversight of the police department after an officer-involved shooting and a federal consent decree over the use of excessive force. Even Chicago, a notorious hotbed of police cover-ups is at least making noise about reforming the system.
These changes don’t happen overnight. A few years ago, Wisconsin became the first state to require outside investigators for officer-involved deaths. More and more, this is catching on in other jurisdictions. Here in North Texas, an outside investigation has begun after a local police department refused to release video of their officers repeatedly applying a Taser to the testicles of a teenager on LSD until the teen died.
When more and more bad officers show up in the public view, then the public starts to call for accountability. That’s when you’ll start seeing more officers convicted, not only for homicide, but for beat-downs, for falsifying reports and evidence, for misconduct in general.
Scott knows that the law doesn’t change rapidly. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once commented on the turtles that were at the bottom of the columns at the Supreme Court:
They’ve got turtles around the bottom, holding up the rest of it. That’s like us on the Court. We’re slow and steady, and we don’t move too fast in any direction.*
That’s how change is going to be. Slow. It will take time and bad facts to make new law, to disallow cop’splaining, to change the criminal law application of a rule meant for civil cases (Graham v. Connor), and to treat cops like everyone else.
I believe that it will happen simply because there is too much video out there now. The police don’t control the narrative anymore. And when it comes out, the public wants accountability. Does anyone think that Slager would have taken a federal civil rights violation plea if not for the cellphone video? Or that Yanez would have been charged without the video of Diamond Reynolds?
Scott, this is progress. That’s the only point I’m making, not that it is right that works better for cops, but that it works better for the people, in hold cops accountable.
*Jeffery Toobin, The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court 113 (2008) (quoting J. O’Connor).