We Actually Know Exactly How to Stop Police From Using Excessive Force. Why Don’t We Do It?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Aug. 15 2014 4:56 PM

Policing the Police

Training, retraining, and yet more training are not the way to stop police brutality.

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Second, cities and counties must establish independent civilian oversight agencies for their law enforcement departments. Civilian oversight of law enforcement is far from novel. Worldwide, countries such as South Africa, Canada, Belgium, and the European Union have police oversight agencies. And there are numerous cities and counties in the United States that have established civilian oversight departments, from Palo Alto, California, to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Honolulu, Hawaii. (A complete listing of all civilian oversight agencies can be found at nacole.org). In San Jose, California, where I am the independent police auditor, our civilian oversight office has existed for 21 years. The beauty of civilian oversight is that it holds police officers accountable to the public by providing independent review of complaints of police misconduct, instead of relying solely upon internal investigations in which the police investigate themselves.

The 1988 murder of 20-year-old Cara Knott by Officer Craig Peyer, a six-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol, illustrates what happens when independent civilian oversight is not a part of misconduct investigations. After stopping Knott, ostensibly for a traffic violation, Peyer made sexual advances on her. When she refused, he killed her by bludgeoning her with his flashlight, strangling her, and then tossing her body over a bridge. It turned out that a number of young women had also been the victims of Peyer’s advances. And while they had filed complaints with the CHP’s Internal Affairs Unit, the department’s internal investigations dismissed their complaints, finding in favor of Peyer. Peyer is now serving a life sentence in a California prison for Knott’s murder.

Third, and as Reihan Salam argues today in Slate, every single law enforcement officer should be required to wear body-worn cameras, or BWCs; and every single law enforcement agency should adopt a protocol for the operation of these cameras that strictly regulates when the cameras can be turned off by officers. Bystanders with cameras have changed policing forever. Witness the public outrage after the release of videos that depicted the beating of Marlene Pinnock and the chokehold death of Eric Garner. Police officers should have cameras, too.

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BWCs promote transparency in policing, they hold officers and the public accountable for their actions, and they reduce civil litigation. The police department of Rialto, California, has 115 sworn officers. In 2009 it became the first known police department to utilize BWCs. A study that analyzed the use of BWCs in Rialto showed that use of force incidents dropped by 59 percent, and that civilian complaints about police misconduct decreased by 87.5 percent. Those numbers are staggering. The benefit to police and the public of recording police interactions clearly justifies its costs. Even the ACLU has concluded that BWCs assist in holding law enforcement more accountable to the communities that they serve.

Over the last decade, claims against cities and counties across the country stemming from police incidents amounted to $22 billion. The special counsel to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department recently reported that between January 2013 and April 2014, 132 cases of excessive force against the department were closed by settlements or court verdicts, totaling $12,175,000. The largest payout in fiscal 2012–2013 was a jury award of $6 million, settled by the County for $3.9 million. The plaintiff in that case claimed that two deputies escalated a traffic stop into violence, pepper-spraying him, punching him in the head, kneeing him in the face, and slamming his head into the pavement. And don’t forget the attorneys’ fees that are often a key driver in the decision of whether or not to settle or proceed to litigation. In Los Angeles County, for every dollar spent on a payout in fiscal 2012, another dollar was spent on the lawyers, amounting to $43 million. Communities policed by officers wearing BWCs will see a dramatic decrease in litigation and the costs associated with it.

All the outrage surrounding the violence against unarmed black people this summer will amount to nothing if we simply settle for more investigations and more training. There are steps we can take to reduce police violence, and they have been proved to work.

LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, the first black woman appointed to the bench in Northern California, is the independent police auditor for the city of San Jose.

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