America must solve the problem of abuse of power in law enforcement

America must solve the problem of abuse of power in law enforcement
© Greg Nash

Most of us have now seen the video of the tragic death of George Floyd. Pinned to the ground by police officer Derek Chauvin, he starts to plead for his life and even cries out for his mother. This scene resulted from an accusation of counterfeiting by a shopkeeper. Floyd threatened no one, killed no one, and robbed no one. An unfortunate fact is that killings like this occur across our nation often. It is disturbingly easy to compare the death of Floyd with the death of Eric Garner six years ago.

It would be overly simple to ascribe police killings entirely to race, but it would be dishonest to omit it. As Floyd died in broad daylight on camera with witnesses, Chauvin was initially just dismissed from the Minneapolis Police Department. Prosecutors asked for patience as they looked into it, and the police union sought an investigation before rushing to judgment, despite the striking clarity of the video. Indeed, no other American would receive such deference at work. We have to see it as nothing other than a mockery of the ideals that our democracy was founded on.

Amid the coronavirus lockdown protests, heavily armed men brandished weapons and attempted to storm the Michigan State Capitol. In this case, the authorities reacted with admirable restraint. When two white Georgia men chased down and shot Ahmaud Arbery to death, the authorities did not act until a video of the killing surfaced. The Constitution rests on the fundamental pillars that have allowed it to endure for generations. Equal justice under law is now perhaps the most significant of these principles. Is this what equal justice under law is supposed to mean?

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We are told that discriminatory police conduct is rare. The “law and order” politicians assert that security requires leeway in police conduct, and that any restrictions will embolden criminals. All the while, black men are shot in the back or choked to death, homeless black people are gunned down in broad daylight, and pregnant black women give birth by themselves in prison without any assistance. Cruelty against authorities to minorities is not incidental, and the government is not to be trusted to guarantee the liberty of all Americans, so change is needed right away.

The rules of police conduct must be made to prevent such abuses. Our courts have taken the reasonable exemption of qualified immunity and expanded it to forgive all manner of sins by police. This legal shield was meant to allow officials like judges and legislators to perform their duty without fear of repercussion for incidentally poor outcomes, but its use for law enforcement officers fuels the conditions for notorious abuse of power. Congress has to clarify that blanket immunity for police conduct was never truly intended. Justin Amash has introduced a bill with a more restrictive qualified immunity doctrine, but only one of its cosponsors is Republican, making the Senate outlook regrettably bleak.

Activity by police unions has a similar effect. Many cities have agreements with police unions that provide impunity for actions performed as officers, even for excessive or unjustified use of force. This collusion of authorities to permit transgressions of liberty by law enforcement has led to rampant violations like that against Floyd. State and local governments must enact more restrictive policies on use of force by police. Too many suspects are treated unfairly and brutally under outdated draconian practices, and the effects damage minority communities disproportionately.

Reform of the criminal justice system is the only way to ensure balance. The government must decriminalize or legalize substances made illegal for racist reasons and eliminate procedural hurdles like cash bail to fuel the nation toward equal justice under law. Finally, we have to ban police departments from buying any excess weapons and equipment from the military. It is incredible the New York Police Department is already larger than the Belgian Army. It does not have to be better armed.

In this time of uncertainty, we must not let those who “protect and serve” abuse their power. Entire communities have gone unheard by politicians and fellow citizens alike. We can honor the memory of Floyd by tackling the criminal justice system that had failed him so miserably.

Christopher Condon is a policy analyst for the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. You can follow him on Twitter @CondonSense.