Vice recently ran a piece by Molly Crabapple that seeks to answer the question of how to stop cops from beating and killing people all the time. It’s an important question, given that police really do beat and kill people all of the time. There’s no national database, but there are many who have tried to keep an eye on police violence – but how can we stop it?
In the piece, Crabapple expounds on the fact that police aren’t held accountable for their actions, even when this involves injuring or killing civilians. Watchdog groups and accountability processes are toothless and impossible to navigate, and police departments quickly engage in cover-ups and character assassination of victims to discredit any allegations that there was police misconduct. In the rare occurrence that a police officer actually faces punishment, usually he is merely given paid leave or a desk job while the city or county pays out huge fines or settlements to victims and their families. The actual officers face little punishment at all.
In a country where daily life is increasingly criminalized—especially in poorer communities—police officers are protected from the consequences of their actions. Instead of being jailed, their punishment might be getting assigned to desk duty.
“It is virtually unheard of for police officers to be arrested and charged for assaults committed against ordinary civilians. It just never happens.” Scott Levy, a lawyer who is director of the Fundamental Fairness Project at the Bronx Defenders, told me.
The money for settlements comes from taxpayers, not the abusive officers or the police departments that employ them. In New York City, payouts for Bronx detective Peter Valentine’s illegal raids cost taxpayers nearly $1.3 million. Valentine, meanwhile, continues to “serve” the city.
If a victim accepts a settlement, the cop generally does not admit wrongdoing, which means the assault that led to the payout will not be held against him if and when he attacks others.
Crabapple’s solution is to police the police:
These meta-cops could be given quotas of officers to arrest each month. They’d no doubt lean heavily on quality-of-life violations, arresting cops who made communities unpleasant by groping black teens or hassling street vendors. As cops do now, these meta-cops could be promoted based on their arrest numbers. They might sometimes detain cops for rudeness, or failing to present ID, but that’s to be expected. Their jobs would be stressful. They’d have to lay down the law.
Of course, cops who used force against citizens would be handcuffed immediately, held for up to 72 hours in order to be processed and charged. If they didn’t plea out to a lesser crime, they’d be brought to trial, to determine if force was really used in self-defense or defense of others.
She admits that it’s a facetious idea, but the idea of using the police’s tools to crack down on their violence is not unthinkable. Reining in their impunity would require some kind of enforcement.
Reading through her piece, though, I was reminded of something I wrote a long time ago, about private criminal prosecutions. In some countries, civilians could bring criminal charges against state officials (such as police) in an attempt to hold them accountable where the state had failed. Given that, as Crabapple admits earlier in her piece, states attorneys are just as complicit by refusing to prosecute renegade officers and politicians are just as complicit by always supporting their boys in blue, perhaps accountability is better in the hands of the people.
The idea of using private prosecutions to hold police accountable is in the same vein as “meta-police,” in that we use the state’s usual channels for perpetuating violence (stats, quotas, lawyers) to try to curtail it. While “meta-police” may be better than allowing police to police themselves, any police overseers are still police. Any government attorney still works for the government. Taking action in the courtrooms, but outside of the state’s bureaucracy, could be a more sure way to hold police accountable.
Obviously, changing a fundamental piece of our judicial structure isn’t exactly an option on the table. And, as one person featured in her article states, the best solution is to abolish the police. In the meantime, finding ways to hold police officers accountable is an important thing to do.