Another step to make the police accountable

One of the shocking things that emerged from the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of the police was that the federal government does not have a reliable national database of deaths at the hands of the police. Allie Gross and Brian Schatz report that there are some hopes that this may change.

Last week, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013. Currently awaiting Obama’s signature, it mandates that states receiving federal criminal justice assistance grants report, by gender and race, all deaths that occur in law enforcement custody, including any while a person is being detained or arrested. This would include events like the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, says Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a sponsor of the bill, in an interview with Mother Jones.

The bill also mandates that federal law enforcement agencies annually gather and report these deaths to the US attorney general, who in turn has two years to analyze the data, determine if and how it can be used to reduce the number of such deaths, and file a report to Congress.

The catch is that there have been similar measures in the past but there were no penalties for local police departments not submitting the information. This law says that states can lose up to 10% of their federal law enforcement grants but it still leaves it up to the attorney general to monitor compliance and hand out those fines.

Meanwhile, New York City police continue their work slow down where they are refusing to arrest people that ‘they don’t have to’, which is a telling statement indeed. What they mean is that they are not arresting and fining lots of people for what are called ‘quality of life’ offenses such littering, selling loose cigarettes, panhandling, sleeping on park benches, public urination, and the like. Cracking down hard on these kinds of things was part of the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing that said that ignoring minor offenses led to a sense of general breakdown in society and emboldened crooks to commit more serious crimes.

This was always a controversial theory. Proponents pointed to the reduction over time in crime in New York as evidence in its favor but opponents pointed out that serious crime has been in steep decline in violent crime all over the nation (and many parts of the world) over the last four decades irrespective of whether police in those jurisdictions were adopting this policy or not, and that other societal factors (such as the dramatic reduction of lead in the environment) could be the reason.

The catch about arresting and fining people for these minor offenses is that they are only minor for well-off people but affect poor people in dramatic fashion. Better off people just pay the fine and walk away. Poor people often default on the initial fine because they cannot pay and then extra fines get added on along with interest and before long, they can end up in jail for what started out as a minor offense. NPR had a serious of stories about how many people lose their driving licenses as a general punishment for nonpayment of fines, even if their initial offense had nothing to do with their driving posing a risk to others, and this loss destroys their ability to work, making their life situation perilous.

Furthermore, cities often use the fines from these minor offenses as a source of revenue. As Matt Taibbi points out, the police become, in effect revenue generators for the cities.

Crime in New York has not risen following the slowdown and New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton, an architect and advocate of the broken windows theory, was asked about it and he said that you could suspend the policy for short periods without adverse consequences but that his faith in the theory was unshaken and that they would go back to it once the slowdown ended.

So it looks like we are going to see a continuation of the aggressive policing that has caused such a rift between public and police and results in the police viewing themselves as some kind of occupying force that is above the law.



  1. Mano Singham says

    I don’t think Bratton approves of this. In fact, the police action is an act of insubordination against their immediate boss (Bratton) and their ultimate boss (the mayor). All this is woven into the negotiations between the police unions and the city over a new contract so part of the drama is to gain leverage in those negotiations.

  2. says

    It’s funny, b/c you gotta wonder what that famous right-winger Ronald Reagan would do. Oh, he’d probably do to the cops what he did to the air traffic controllers.

  3. smrnda says

    What really has to be acknowledged is that the police are making choices in terms of arrests and citations based on financial incentives, and have been for some time, making them more an extortion racket that *occasionally* might do something that actually concerns public safety. The only possible negative impact of the NYC slowdown would be lost revenue for the city, but that only demonstrates that the city has chosen an easily abused means of collecting revenue.

    Bratton seems to be the type who will grasp at any straws to support a theory. Maybe he can also explain lower crime in European cities where you can drink on the streets , possess drugs, and where even some public nudity is accepted.

  4. says

    The only thing that will stop cops from committing crimes is citizen oversight -- not by government, but by communities themselves, and be given the legal teeth to enforce it. If cops start getting suspended without pay, losing jobs, having to pay restitution to victims and doing serious prison time (or get the death penalty in select cases), we’ll see a change in attitudes. But as long as they have absolute power without consequences, they will continue to be corrupted absolutely.

  5. lorn says

    As I see it the single biggest problem I see here is that the police are caught in the middle of conflicting parties.

    Business wants the police to discourage the poor, homeless and unruly and make the disappear. The Gardner case was a result of businesses complaining about panhandling and selling ‘loosies’ discomforting and disrupting customers. The police were specifically sent to arrest people doing that.

    With the budget squeeze caused by a desire to win votes by cutting taxes most every town, city and county is short of money. So they see police as a source of revenue.

    In the bad old days of the late 60s and early 70s police were militarized, put into cars, told to go out alone, taught to “take charge” and how to use brutal tactics to make up for lack of numbers and protect themselves. This happened as the US experienced massive riots and some areas of the inner cities became virtual war zones. Some so bad for a time that even police wouldn’t go in.

    At the same time the job changed. At one time police worked set beats, often on foot, usually the beat cop would work the same neighborhood for years. At one time those police went everywhere two at a time. The job was simple enough. In many areas police didn’t go to any academy. Education beyond a few years of high school wasn’t really necessary. It was a blue collar job you picked up OJT and from older officers.

    It was also a job where police had a whole lot of discretion and control. You worked in and knew the neighborhood. How you did things wasn’t well defined and, as long as crime was low, and the important persons in the area were satisfied, you had a free hand. This contrasts with today police where every detail of every evolution, from how to perform a traffic stop to how to put cuffs on a suspect, is defined, trained and practiced until it become automatic, and the officer is made accountable for following procedure to the letter.

    None of that was instigated, planned or under the control of the police on the street.

    Irony is that if you think these complaints are not heard by police you are dead wrong. Almost every complaint is mirrored by long standing complaints by the police themselves. They are caught in the middle.

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