Police Accountability Is Government Accountability

REUTERS/Mike Segar

David Doerr Executive Assistant and Writer, Young Voices
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On June 29, a police officer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, used his stun gun on an unarmed, compliant black man. Footage of the incident has spread rapidly, and the Lancaster Police Department launched an investigation into the officer involved.

But less than two weeks after the attack, they concluded the investigation, and the officer was neither convicted nor suspended. Such incidents demonstrate a problem with American law enforcement — one that conservatives should take seriously.

While conservatives do consistently try to hold government bureaucrats in regulatory agencies accountable, they all too often — in a well-meaning attempt to respect police officers and the rule of law — overlook concerns of police brutality.

This provides one of the relatively rare moments when Democrats seek government accountability more than the right, with left-wing politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders referring to the murders of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice and other unarmed African-American men by police as state-perpetrated violence.

Although valid arguments can be made that the claims of those on the left go too far in their demonization of America’s police, such as when Black Lives Matter members referred to police officers as “pigs in a blanket,” it is important that conservatives don’t fall too far towards the other extreme and ignore the problem of brutality completely.

Police brutality and misconduct is a serious issue in American society, and one that conservatives should more actively address.

In the past few years, high profile cases such as Eric Garner’s death in 2014 and Daniel Shaver’s death in 2016 have made police accountability a national issue. Civil society requires a faith that law enforcement will justly carry out the law, and such well-publicized instances of brutality only serve to break down that trust. Furthermore, statistics on police brutality and misconduct show trends that are worth taking seriously.

One Cato Institute study found that in 2010 there were 6,613 law enforcement officers accused of misconduct. Of those allegations, 23 percent were accusations of excessive force.

While there are certainly instances within those cases where such force was justified, the fact that this number is so high is concerning, especially when one compares the United States to other developed countries. For instance, using information from 2014, the United States had 458 recorded fatal shootings by police officers.

By contrast, Japan and England had zero deaths, and Germany only had eight, possibly owing to their emphasis on nonviolent tactics in policing. Even taking into account the United States’ much larger population compared to those countries, the difference is stark.

American law enforcement officers kill civilians far too often, and reform is needed. Even if many of those instances are justified shootings, reform would improve the perception of police in America, which would help create better communities across the country.

Americans need to know that police officers are held accountable when they misbehave, just as U.S. citizens who don’t hold law enforcement jobs are held accountable for their wrongdoings.

Yet police officers often do not face lasting consequences for their misconduct.

In fact, CNN reported that between 2005 and 2017, only 80 officers were arrested for on-duty shootings. Out of those, less than half were actually convicted. Those who escaped conviction include Jeronimo Yanez and Timothy Loehmann — the officers who shot and killed Philando Castile and Tamir Rice — respectively.

While obviously most police officers are not abusing their position and engaging in unjustified brutality, the fact that so few accusations lead to conviction, even when footage of the incident suggests misconduct, is concerning.

Such acquittals have convinced many Americans, especially African-Americans, that police officers currently operate above the law and without consequence. Although not all instances of police violence are unjustified, by ignoring concerns with unaccountable brutality, conservatives are missing the chance to show their critics that they are for limited government in all cases.

In the aftermath of Ferguson and Baltimore, Republican officials were presented with the opportunity to show that government accountability does extend to law enforcement, but they missed it.

Wanting to counteract arguably overly hostile Democratic rhetoric, Republican figures generally did not advocate for reform of law enforcement agencies. Instead, they chose to emphasize that police officers have a hard job and deserve the American people’s respect.

While this sentiment is understandable, deflecting all criticisms of systemic issues by blaming any misconduct on a few rogue officers does nothing to help prevent future abuses by law enforcement officials. Conservatives should look into limiting the ability of police officers to act without due process, as well as thoroughly but fairly investigating any abuse accusations.

President Donald Trump, however, has shown that he is unreceptive to holding police officers accountable.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump portrayed himself as the “law and order” candidate and while that may not necessarily be a bad thing, the president has used that to justify his hindrance of efforts to reduce police misconduct. In a 2017 address, Trump claimed that police could completely eliminate crime from Chicago if only they were not held in check by laws limiting their use of force. Such a statement ignores the importance of limited government in policing.

In the name of party unity, Republicans generally do not criticize Trump on his excesses. But conservatives need to remember that police accountability is a core part of government accountability.

There is a need for reform in America’s law enforcement agencies, and conservatives can improve on this issue. In seeking government accountability in general, conservatives cannot ignore accountability for police officers.

David Doerr is an executive assistant and writer at Young Voices. He is a politics and history major at Hillsdale College.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.