It feels like over the past two weeks we’ve been inundated with stories of police abuse and misconduct. Several news reports have put out wide ranging allegations of misconduct from across the country. In Florida, a woman was thrown into a bench in a holding cell and had bones broken. The police initially claimed she was resisting arrest but later withdrew the charges. In New York, two detectives were allegedly involved in a road rage incident. In Atlantic City, a police dog attacked a man and tore up the back of his head. In a video of the incident, it appears that a gang of officers beat the man at the same time. Here in Philadelphia, a patrol officer was suspended after two separate allegations of harassment and misconduct appeared in the news. Does it seem like these incidents are on the rise? Or are we just seeing more of them now that our lives are subject to taping every minute of every day? I suspect it’s the latter and we’re simply getting concrete proof of what’s been happening for years. Each of the above incidents came to light because they were on tape.
Is there anything we can do about this? Well, police misconduct like this is part of the reason why lawyers like us exist. The threat of lawsuits and litigation has always served as at least some deterrent against police misconduct. Rather than turn this into a plug post, though, let’s look at other possible solutions. Besides, lawsuits have clearly not solved the problem since these incidents are still so prevalent. Obviously, people having cell phones on them at all times are a great equalizer. Cell phone videos and surveillance videos have helped tremendously in the defense of criminal charges brought against people accused of assaulting the police and in bringing lawsuits against the police for misconduct. They have allowed citizens to show that some police misbehave and then lie about it. Not being afraid to videotape something that you see happening that is wrong is one way all of us can help prevent police abuse. Some officers who are already doing something wrong will try to tell you that you cannot tape something or that it is illegal for you to do it. This is wrong. You are allowed to tape anything that happens in public.
From a policy standpoint, better police training and education would be a big help. As it is, the academic standards for many police departments are not terribly high. Raising those standards and then requiring extensive training on how to handle the high stress situations officers routinely encounter would also be a tremendous help. Better accountability would also help. By accountability I mean, too often in Philadelphia we see officers who have clearly engaged in misconduct retaining their jobs. I suppose a police department could try long-term suspensions with required classes and programs before reinstatement in cases that do not involve the most serious infractions. It is clearly a problem. It clearly needs to be addressed from the top down. An independent court-appointed monitor should also oversee to remove any possibility of influence of cronyism. For now, though, each individual can do their part and not turn a blind eye to misconduct. If you see something wrong, tape it. What you do with the tape after is up to you, there are many options including calling a lawyer, calling a news agency, calling the Internal Affairs Division of the police department. No matter what you do, always retain an original for yourself.