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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Brandi Blessett
May 6, 2016
On April 25, 2016, the City of Cleveland settled a $6 million civil rights lawsuit with Tamir Rice’s family, a 12-year old Black boy killed by police while holding a pellet gun outside of a recreation center. In 2015, New York City agreed to a $5.9 million settlement with the estate of Eric Garner. Garner was put in a chokehold and killed by police. Inkster police were caught on camera beating Floyd Dent. The incident led to a $1.4 million settlement with the city. These cases represent the most recent examples of the financial costs related to police misconduct. According to Mother Jones, from 2006-2011, the total settlement and judgments against 44 large police departments, as paid by government, was $735 million, individual officers paid only $171,300.
As a public administrator, this reality is sickening for a number of reasons. First, at a time when financial austerity is the rationale behind closing parks and recreation centers, eliminating social programs and limiting public services, it is absolutely appalling that taxpayer dollars are being used to settle cases of police harassment, violence and, in some cases, death for victims or their families. Second, settlements do nothing to address the problem of misconduct. More than anything, payouts are a slap on the wrist for officers, most of whom receive paid administrative leave while investigations occur—another cost that is transferred to taxpayers indirectly. Subsequently, officers are seldom indicted, let alone convicted of any crime. Third, the current cycle of misconduct, investigation and settlement undermines any notions of fairness, transparency and accountability for the victims and families affected by police misconduct. For example, Pantaleo, the officer involved with Eric Garner’s death, was the suspect in at least three civil rights suits before his encounter with Garner.
In this regard, victims and their families have little or no recourse to experience justice, particularly as qualified immunity has been implemented to reflect complete immunity under almost all circumstances. In Harlow v. Fitzgerald, the Court explained, “government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights which a reasonable person would have known.” The latitude implied in this judgment almost always protects the individual. However, the organization for which she or he is employed is likely burdened by the financial costs (e.g., lawsuits or settlements) associated with any questionable behavior. In the case of the police, taxpayers foot the bill for officer wrongdoings.
Collectively this reality begs the question: what responsibility does government have to hold law enforcement officers responsible for their actions, particularly when they are counterproductive to organizational goals and undermine public trust?
This is an important question, in my judgment, based on the marginalizing effect qualified immunity has in protecting “the bad apples” that do exist in police agencies. For communities of color, the legacy of police discrimination, harassment and brutality is well-known and documented. However, even with videos (e.g., cellphone, dashboard, body cameras and surveillance) that capture civilian and police interactions and clearly show excessive use of force (sometimes deadly), justice or accountability are a rare reality.
In a previous column, I argued for cultural competency training as a strategy to help combat deeply rooted prejudices, ideologies and negative social constructions that inform and often justify brutality. While I still feel such training is needed, realistically the current organizational culture within law enforcement agencies promotes the quantitative aspects of the job, whereby productivity is equated with the number of citations written or types of arrest made (felony or misdemeanor). Therefore, productivity leads to professional advancement, which is associated with more money and authority for officers. In other words, there is no incentive for police officers to engage with community residents and cultivate relationships that could actually result in cooperative partnerships with citizens. In this regard, appealing to the sensibilities of professional standards and codes of conduct appear to be a moot point.
My next step is an attempt to appeal to the normative values of effectiveness and economy for local governments, both of which are severely undermined by the status quo handling of police misconduct. As mentioned earlier, settlements and payouts do not address the root causes of misconduct because attitudes, behaviors or processes seldom change. Just as exploding state budgets required legislatures to rethink ways to address prison populations, I argue that local governments need to rethink ways to address police misconduct—if for no other reason than to uphold the fiduciary responsibility administrators have to taxpayers.
Maybe economic appeals will at least warrant some consideration by government officials because pleas for justice (e.g., equity, accountability, fairness, transparency) have fallen on deaf ears. These are serious issues that need to be addressed. For every incident of police misconduct that occurs without meaningful consequences, all aspects of society (e.g., citizens, administrators, institutions, policies) are complicit in injustice and the maintenance of two-tiered system that privileges some more than others.
Author: Brandi Blessett is an assistant professor in the department of public policy and administration at Rutgers University-Camden. Her research broadly focuses on issues of social justice. Her areas of study include: cultural competency, social equity, administrative responsibility and disenfranchisement. She can be reached at [email protected].