Michael Brown was an 18-year-old who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. There are numerous facts that are still unknown about what happened that night between Brown and officer Darren Wilson, but many are seeking justice for Michael Brown. Eric Garner, 43, died on July 17 during an incident in which he was placed in a chokehold at the hands of an officer with the New York City Police Department (NYPD). Unlike the Brown case, though, the facts surrounding Garner’s death are pretty clear, largely because witnesses recorded the whole thing. No matter how many differences there are in these two cases, they both highlight an issue that has long been of concern – and that is the issue of police brutality.
I’ve been looking for organizations that can shed some light on the subject and was fortunate enough to speak with Tim Lynch, director of Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice and contributor to Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project (NPMRP). According to the NPMRP’s website, “The purpose of this project is to gather reports of credible allegations of police misconduct so policymakers (and others) can make informed assessments of the nature and circumstances of police misconduct, and consider proposals that can minimize wrongdoing.” In order to achieve that purpose, the NPMRP uses media reports from all available media sources in the U.S. that deal with both confirmed and alleged instances of police misconduct. “All information gathered is manually validated to determine the credibility of the report, whether the report is a duplicate of an existing report, and how each report should be categorized before recording each report to a police misconduct database for use in our statistical analysis.”
The issue of police brutality is one that is widespread, and opinions are divided on what a solution might be. Here, I’ve asked Lynch several questions about the NPMRP, police misconduct, and what we might be able to expect moving forward.
1. How did you become involved in the issue of police misconduct, and why do you think it is an important issue?
I have been focusing on criminal justice issues for many years and, as a part of that work, I look into instances of police and prosecutorial misconduct. Keeping tabs on misconduct is important because the police wield enormous powers–the power to search, detain, seize property, seize children, and use physical force against people.
2. Please explain what the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project aims to do.
About two years ago, Cato launched our Reporting Project. The Project has several aims, including aggregating misconduct stories from around the country; trying (to the extent we can) to discern trend lines; and identifying policies than can minimize misconduct.
3. Police misconduct surely includes excessive use of force by police officers, what else would be considered police misconduct?
There is a wide variety, but I can give you some examples. First, we do track misconduct when police agents act in their “personal capacity.” That could be drunk driving, domestic violence, theft, or shootings. If police are willing to violate laws when they are off-duty, we think it tells us something about how they will regard rules that pertain to their police work. Second, there are instances where the police engage in misconduct under the “color of their police authority.” That might be preparing false reports, perjury in court, false arrests, and illegal searches. Third, we also draw attention to “official policies” that we think are problematic. This third category can, in some ways, be the worst, because the department is openly defending a questionable practice or policy. These would include high speed vehicle chases through residential neighborhoods, stop & frisk tactics, civil asset forfeiture powers, and no-knock drug raids on people’s homes.
4. What do you think is the most misunderstood or overlooked aspect related to police misconduct?
Everyone pretty much knows that police misconduct exists, but the average person underestimates the extent of it. People are also misinformed about what can be done about it. For example, many just assume that if the police get out of line, a big lawsuit will be brought against the department. Most victims will not seek out attorneys. And for the other cases, attorneys will decline to pursue them because the injuries or physical damages are not deemed serious enough. The cases that do proceed are not easy to win because it may boil down to the victim’s word against the police officer. And when someone does win, the government can appeal, thereby dragging the case out for years and years.
5. What do you feel like the root of the police misconduct problem is?
Power tends to corrupt. Next, there is the problem of an agency investigating itself. Hard to believe, but police commanders are more concerned about the bad publicity that may arise from an instance of misconduct than the misconduct itself. Sometimes the commanders want to fire a bad cop but police unions make that almost impossible. And when illegal actions are not punished, you get more of it.
6. There has been much discussion and controversy surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. So many different issues and factors come into play when forming an opinion or set of actions. How do you think officials and police officers in Ferguson should address the problem?
The Governor and state attorney general acted too slowly. The officer involved should have been identified earlier and a special prosecutor should have been appointed to ensure impartiality.
7. How have the policies impacting the way police officers address certain situations changed in recent years and do you think these changes have made the instance of police misconduct more or less prevalent?
Police departments vary around the country. For example, some operate in rural areas; some operate in urban areas. One problem in some of the urban areas is that the police seem to measure their “performance” by stops and arrests. These “pro-active” tactics can have harmful consequences. Instead of responding to, say, a burglary, and helping to solve that crime for a victim, the police are under pressure to initiate contact with people with stop and frisk tactics. When 8 out 10 young men are stopped and no contraband is found (i.e. no evidence of wrong-doing) resentment starts building and festering.
8. A police officer’s response to a given situation is highly dependent on the facts of each case. Is there a way for policymakers and police officers to move forward and address the issue that does not involve handling each case separately?
Yes–many policy changes are needed. Here are a few: (1) disband paramilitary units, or at least keep them from routine policing calls. Only for, say, hostage situations; (2) abolish civil asset forfeiture; only seize property after conviction for a crime; (3) end stop & frisk, pro-active policing; get away from quantity of arrests as a measure of performance; (3) scale back no-knock raids on homes; and (4) train police to respect the right of people to film them with smart phones.