Six Steps Toward Ending Police Abuses

“Please, I can’t breathe!” George Floyd begged as a Minneapolis police officer crushed a knee into his neck as he lay prone and handcuffed. The officer who killed Floyd deserves to be tried for murder, and the officers who participated or stood by and watched deserve to be tried as accomplices.

It doesn’t matter here what Floyd is alleged to have done. The person who called 911 said that Floyd was trying to pay a store with fake bills and that he was intoxicated. I have no idea whether the allegations are true. The officers involved claimed that Floyd resisted arrest. Video shows that Floyd struggled as police yanked him from a vehicle, after which Floyd cooperated. [Update: Subsequently released video seems to show Floyd struggling with police in a police vehicle.] Regardless, the officer’s extreme use of force obviously was entirely unnecessary to subdue Floyd. No reasonable person doubts that crushing a person’s throat for minutes on end can kill the victim. It is a police officer’s job to bring the accused to the courts for justice, not to play street executioner.

What, practically, can we as regular people do toward stopping such senseless violence by a minority of the people we pay to protect us? Here I review six main ways.

1. Elect District Attorneys Ready to Prosecute Abusive Cops

One of the most important things we can do is elect district attorneys committed to the principle of equality under the law. In Colorado, as in most other states, the DA is elected. Here are the questions that every person should ask candidates for DA: “Will you treat police officers and everyone else equally under the law? If a police officer uses force, such that you would prosecute anyone else for the same act, will you also prosecute the police officer by the same standards?”

Obviously police may do certain things that a regular person cannot do, such as obtain and serve a lawful search warrant, but that doesn’t change the relevant standards of equal treatment. Here, the relevant principle is, “It is not a crime for an individual to forcibly enter a building per a lawfully issued search warrant.” The issue is, if an officer breaks into a building without a warrant or just cause, the officer should be prosecuted just like anyone else would be.

As soon as DAs start consistently prosecuting police officers for violating people’s rights, the small minority of bad cops will get the message. And the vast majority of good cops will be able to do their jobs far more effectively.

The main officer involved with killing Floyd was criminally charged with third-degree murder and arrested on May 29, four days after the May 25 incident. Ask yourself this question: If you or I killed someone the way the officer killed Floyd, and the authorities knew where we were, would it take them four days to arrest us? The notion is ridiculous.

Mike Freeman, DA of Hennepin County (home of Minneapolis), dragged his heels on charging the cops involved with killing Floyd. Yet, in 2018, Freeman’s office quickly charged dozens of black men with felonies for low-level marijuana offenses. It was only “after Hennepin County’s chief public defender contacted Mayor Jacob Frey to complain about what looked like blatant racial profiling” that Freeman’s office dropped the charges, reports the Star Tribute. That is not what equality under the law looks like.

2. Record the Police

Another thing we can do is video worrisome police actions. The ACLU of Colorado even has a “Mobile Justice” app you can download to your phone. The app automatically sends video footage to the ACLU’s servers. Or you can just use your phone’s built-in camera app. Just be sure not to interfere in officers’ legitimate actions.

A young lady named Darnella Frazier filmed the death of Floyd. No doubt it was a horrific experience, and at the time she never could have predicted that her video would precipitate national protests and international news coverage. Hopefully she will have the support she needs to deal with the traumatic aftermath. The rest of us can recognize her heroic efforts to shine a light on injustice. She deserves a Pulitzer along with our gratitude.

3. Support Reform of Qualified Immunity

As the Cato Institute’s Clark Neily argues, the legal system should stop protecting rights-violating cops under the doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which practically prevents almost all lawsuits against abusive police officers.

The New York Times explains, “What makes these [relevant civil] cases nearly impossible for plaintiffs to win is the court’s requirement that any violation of rights be ‘clearly established’—that is, another court must have previously encountered a case with the same context and facts, and found there that the officer was not immune. This is a judge-made rule; the civil rights law itself says nothing about a ‘clearly established’ requirement. Yet in practice it has meant that police officers prevail virtually every time, because it’s very hard to find cases that are the same in all respects.”

4. Support the Quick Firing of Abusive Cops

Also, it needs to be far easier to fire cops who abuse their authority—along with cops who look the other way as their colleagues senselessly hurt people. Get the few bad cops out so the good cops can effectively do their jobs. Today, cops often are held to a lower standard than everyone else when it comes to assaulting people; they should be held to the same standard when it comes to criminal prosecution and a much higher standard when it comes to keeping their tax-funded jobs.

A major problem here is police union contracts, which often “shield officers from scrutiny and discipline,” as Reuters found in 2017.

5. Support the Repeal of Unjust Laws

As Justin Amash notes, to achieve peace, “legislators must stop creating new criminal laws that serve mostly to establish pretexts for confrontation and conflict.” Let us remember that Eric Garner, who also cried, “I can’t breathe,” was choked to death by police for allegedly “illegally selling loose cigarettes.” The drug laws, with their overtly racist origins, have been particularly devastating to minority communities.

6. Educate and Protest

Peaceful protests work; violence generally is wrong and counter-productive. Obviously educating people about the evils of slavery, of Jim Crow laws, of terror campaigns against African Americans is essential. Many of today’s injustices are rooted in injustices of the past.

Rights-violating behavior by police does not excuse rights-violating behavior by others. The looting we’ve seen in Minneapolis and elsewhere is despicable and destructive of communities. You’ve heard the expression, “No justice, no peace.” But are we talking about justified civil disobedience or hurting innocent people? If you want justice, be just. The Denver protesters who smashed windows and vandalized the Colorado capitol with symbols of Communist mass-murderers dishonor the memory of Floyd and efforts to achieve legal equality. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock set just the right tone in encouraging peaceful protests and condemning violence.

My four year old long has wanted to become a police officer so he can help people. I had to explain to him that, in the case at hand, a police officer unjustifiably killed someone. I had to explain to him, as best I could, the horrific story of racial oppression in the United States, oppression that all too often came at the hands of police. I want my son to be able to grow up and become a police officer if he wants, proud of his noble profession, proud of his colleagues, and proud of keeping people safe. It is up to us to create the police forces that our children can look to with unqualified admiration.

Update: Samuel Sinyangwe has an excellent thread on concrete steps to reduce police violence. He says body cameras and bias training doesn’t work. What does work? Formal use-of-force restrictions, demilitarization, police contract reform, data-driven “predictive policing,” organizational alternatives to police, response alternatives to police, and more DOJ investigations of local police.

Image: Lorie Shaull