Addressing Excessive Use of Force

While there’s no straight policy path to end racial bias and discrimination, there are some good ways to help curb the use of excessive force, including lethal force, by law enforcement officers. There are even ways to help curb some racial bias in law enforcement.

In talking with a friend of mine who spent most of her life as a prosecutor, we arrived at three things that, if done immediately, would seem to help deal with these issues directly:

1.) Every police force would have to have an internal and external civilian auditor.
2.) Every police force would have to release (make public) all disciplinary records.
3.) Every case involving an accusation of maltreatment by an officer would have to be prosecuted by a special (outside) prosecutor.

There has been push for some of these things lately, although most of it has come by addressing #3. However I can’t stress enough how much I think #1 is critical.

How these requirements become standard practice and policy is another issue. Individual states and/or cities could establish them on their own, but I don’t see any way that such a method would lead to universal adoption. I’m in favor of the Department of Justice effectively forcing states and localities to adopt these standards.

Of course the DOJ can’t walk into local jurisdictions and mandate the adoption of a particular policy. But that’s not how the federal government typically influences local policy anyway. It would be equally foolish to say that, because of state’s rights, the DOJ can’t make this sort of thing happen.

The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 allows the DOJ to distribute significant funds to local law enforcement, money it seems local law enforcement can’t do without. The DOJ has initiatives such as the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Community Oriented Policing Service (which alone supports over 13,000 of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country), and the Office of Justice Programs (Indianapolis, for example, receives just less than 11 million from this one).

Rep. Hank Johnson just submitted a bill in the US House of Representatives that aims, via the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, to apply stipulations to this money. It aims to stipulate that, in order for a state or unit of local law enforcement to be eligible for vital federal funding funding, its jurisdiction must comply with a number of things, including the public release of grand jury documents and the appointment of a special prosecutor in cases involving wrongful death because of the actions of an officer.

Another move Rep. Johnson has made, one I’d like more info about (I can’t find the text of the bill yet), is to introduce a second bill which makes officer-involved murder and manslaughter federal charges. This would clearly allow for federal oversight, if not outright prosecution, in cases involving a wrongful death committed by an officer. My guess would be that an officer-involved killing could become a federal charge on the grounds that it violates either the 4th or the 6th amendment of the Bill of Rights. Similar reasoning provides the grounds for a civil rights charge being a federal one. I suppose we’ll see how the new Congress handles these and exactly how the second one will be written.

All this said, I wish the first two points, and perhaps especially the first, would be added to Johnson’s first proposed bill. As stated, both of his bills only apply to instances of wrongful death by an officer. So many instances of excessive force, fortunately, do not end in death, and Congress has the power to help curb these if their attention is set on it.


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