The Thursday, July 21, 2016 edition of the Washington Post contained an editorial, “Policing Needs A New Orientation” in which the writer persuasively argues that successful policing is more than simply reducing violent crime. It is also about how the public is treated during police encounters that involve the day to day work of the police — traffic violations, minor public order infractions and assorted misdemeanors.
When the police don’t adjust their method of approach depending upon the type of conduct being policed, and treat every encounter, and every person contacted the same, the problems begin. Even as we hear more and more about the police shooting at people and people shooting at the police, the numbers simply do not justify treating every encounter as though the person contacted is violent, armed, and intends to do harm to the officer. As bad as the current news and climate is, it must be remembered that there are roughly 12 million arrests made annually by roughly 900 thousand officers, yet the total number of citizens and officers being assaulted and/or killed in these encounters is microscopic and even smaller when the additional millions of police stops which only result in a traffic ticket are taken into account.
The editorial goes on to suggest, as a reform remedy, improved police recruitment and training — agreed. But we can’t exclude from the formula for reforming policing, prosecuting individual officers when their conduct is, or may be, criminal, and justifies prosecution. The editorial states, “We will not reform policing by prosecuting individual officers . . . “. Oh yes we will!
Prosecution and accountability for socially unacceptable behavior must be applied equally, and includes the police. Compelling accountability and socially acceptable behavior is the function of the criminal law. When the public sees equal treatment of offending police officers, more prosecutions of offending officers, and elimination of internal investigation cover ups, and the police code of silence, treating officers equally with everyone else, reform will begin.