I assume everyone reading this already knows that the United States has a major problem with police violence. In particular police wielding excessive force, up to and including killing people, on a semi-regular basis. The Black Lives Matter movement is a direct response to the seemingly unending stream of African Americans unjustly killed by police, but African Americans aren’t the only victims of the police. Other racial minorities as well as whites are also killed in large numbers. Killedbypolice.net has the current body count at 746 through mid-August 2016. That number is only deaths and does not include people who were unjustly shot, tased, beaten, or in some way victimized by the police.
Addressing the root causes of the problem likely requires radical changes that we aren’t likely to seen any time soon. So with this post I’m going to present several solutions to better align the incentives of the police with the needs of our communities and to reduce the instances of physical altercations between the police and members of the general public. While these proposals are a fairly dramatic departure from the way things are currently done, I hope that reasonable people would take them seriously.
Require Police to Carry Liability Insurance
Like all government bureaucracies, the police are insulated from market competition that would otherwise hold them accountable for the consequences of their actions. Actually it’s even worse than that as the police are often the ones who investigate alleged criminal activity. This leads to the all-to-often, "We’ve investigated ourselves and found we did nothing wrong". Couple that with the fraternity-like mentality of police where none want to cross the "thin blue line", and you have a recipe for an unaccountable institution. We could try to pass a bunch of laws to "regulate" the police, but I’m skeptical they would be of any effect. So what I’m going to propose is that we require police officers to carry individual liability insurance. There should be a couple immediate effects of this policy.
First, consider what happens when a victim of police violence wins a civil lawsuit against the police ―the individual cops don’t have to pay restitution to the victim (or victim’s family or estate), instead the police force just bills the taxpayer. How messed up is that? You and I weren’t the ones who violated someone’s rights, but yet we have to pay for it. The NYPD alone has paid out half a billion in damages for police brutality over a 5 year period. Imagine what would happen if a private corporation just confiscated money from innocent people every time they lost a lawsuit ― we would certainly expect that corporation to behave more recklessly as it doesn’t have to bear the cost of it’s actions. If police carried liability insurance, not only would the tax payers no longer bear the cost, but the police would finally have an incentive to behave responsibly. Have an abnormal number of use-of-force incidents, or a record of irresponsibility? You’ll have a higher monthly premium.
Secondly, we would have a mechanism for removing irresponsible and/or criminal cops. As noted earlier, when a cops kills someone they are rarely fired. Sometimes they are even given a paid vacation before returning to work. However, if they are required to hold liability insurance as a requirement of keeping their job, they run the risk of having their coverage dropped and becoming uninsurable. Watch a recent Chicago police killing from earlier this month. Neither cop in the video was in any real danger of being killed (certainly not as the unarmed driver was driving away) and neither were there any civilians in immediate danger. Yet both cops unloaded their magazines in a residential neighborhood risking the lives of innocent people. The bullets fired at the driver, thankful didn’t kill anybody, but the other police who responded made sure to kill the unarmed suspect as he exited the vehicle.
These cops are almost certainly not going to lose their jobs, despite recklessly endangering the public and killing an unarmed man. Yet, I can’t see any circumstance in which an for-profit insurance company would look at the body cam footage and decide to continue insuring these police. They are just too much of a liability.
So the bottom line is if we had a policy of requiring liability insurance, we might not get justice in these cases, at least in terms of criminal charges, but we would be able to purge the police forces of the so-called bad apples, which we can’t do currently.
End Pre-Conviction Arrests
Many instances of police brutality and killings come in the course of arresting people, usually for trivial offenses. A classic example is Eric Garner being choked to death by the NYPD (who were not indicted for the murder) for the "crime" of selling cigarettes without a license.
People debating whether the police used excessive force in this case usually do so while accepting the legitimacy of the authority of the police to arrest someone for violating the law. After all, this is how the system has been functioning since basically the beginning of time. But should it operate this way? Consider how the first thing we are told in our public school social studies class is how in this country you are "innocent until proven guilty". If that is really true then why do the police physically assault and batter people who have not yet been proven guilty, and then drag them off and throw them into a cage? Is that how "innocent" people are supposed to be treated? And in almost all of these case the person is just released on bail just a few hours later. Why arrest them at all in that case?
The standard answer is that we need to prevent people from running away before trial. So we arrest them and give them an ultimatum to post bail or wait in prison until their trial. But wait a second! Remember how we’re told the that the reason why the burden of proof in criminal cases is "beyond a reasonable doubt" because it’s "Better ten guilty persons go free, than one innocent man suffer"? Well it seems like the government’s official reasoning here is "Better arrest and imprison ten innocent persons, than to have one guilty person run away before trial". Certainly you don’t need to be a legal scholar to see the inconsistency here. And, of course, in 2016 we have a nearly unlimited ability to track people. CCTV cameras, facial recognition, license plate scanners, financial transactions, etc. It’s unlikely someone will be able to run away an hide for very long. And if they do, the trial continues without them, and then, assuming a guilty verdict, an arrest warrant can be issued.
It seems to me like it would be far more just to, in cases where the accused would have otherwise been granted bail, simply serve them with papers. Notify them they have been indicted and inform them of their court date. An arrest is completely unnecessary (of course, cases where the judge would not have granted bail, such as a mass-murder case, the person would still be arrested for public safety reasons).
The effect of this would be to dramatically reduce the number of physical altercations between the police and the general public. Remember, all arrests must necessarily be a physical altercation. In some of these instances, the attempt by a police office to arrest an already hostile person, will only escalate the situation. And when you’re making thousands of arrests per day, some of them will inevitably turn violent and deadly. And unnecessarily so. It can all be avoided by really treating people as "innocent until proven guilty".
Hire a Civilian Traffic Enforcement
Why in the world do the same people who are supposed to be protecting us from home invasions also write us tickets for coming to a rolling stop at a stop sign? Am I the only person who finds this practice thoroughly weird? It’s like having armed police enforce the "no running" policy in Home Depot. It’s a completely arbitrary use of police resources.
And, as we’ve seen all to often, a great many of traffic stops end with the police officer outright killing the motorist. Here’s a video from last month where the cop pulled over a couple for "busted taillight" only to end up killing the driver when he reached for his license and registration.
Again, most people will debate if the cop "reasonably feared for his life", but it ignores the bigger question ― why are people with guns issuing traffic tickets!? There is nothing about the job of writing traffic tickets that requires an armed police officer. The practice of having cops write tickets has been directly responsible for numerous violent altercations and killings over the years. And it’s all unnecessary.
You might not realize it but there is plenty of precedent for using civilian enforcement personnel. In most cities the "parking enforcement" is not an armed police officer, but rather just an ordinary, unarmed government employee. They don’t have the authority to arrest people, and it isn’t part of their job description. If, in the course of doing their jobs, they witness a crime, they do what everyone else does and call the police. Roads could easily be operated the same way. If the traffic enforcer witnesses a crime, like drunk driving, they can pull the person over and call for the police.
Not only would we reduce the number of deadly alternations by simply getting rid the armed traffic enforcer, but criminals will have far less reason to fear a traffic stop to begin with. The four-time convicted felon, who gets stopped with a kilo of coke in the trunk, is probably going to do whatever it takes to avoid going back to prison. If it’s a police officer pulling him over, there’s a good chance the cop might get shot. If it’s an unarmed civilian traffic enforcer, who cannot search someone’s vehicle or make an arrest, there’s much less of a chance of a violent encounter.
And a nice side effect is this would free up the police to do more of what they should have been doing all along ― protecting us from criminals.
So there we have what I view as three relatively common sense solutions to reducing and eliminating police violence. Admittedly they are a pretty dramatic departure from the status quo, but I suspect there isn’t too much in these proposals to object to. Of course, the police unions, and likely some politicians would vehemently oppose these changes, but when police forces around the country are killing and brutalizing innocent people in large numbers, I don’t think they deserve much of a say.