Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Police Reform and Support for Police

Of all the divisions currently plaguing American society, one of the saddest and most self-destructive has been the tendency of too many who rightly demand accountability for police misconduct to then travel down the negative path toward outright hostility to the police.  That hostility tends to be expressed along with foolish proposals to undermine law enforcement in its essential duties.

I have been a visible and active advocate for police reform:

In my scholarly work, I have highlighted the lack of accountability for public officers for egregious wrongdoing, including sexual violence.

I have been a party to amicus briefs before the Supreme Court emphasizing the vital need for a Bivens claim for federal unconstitutional behavior when no other remedy is available.  That a federal border patrol agent may shoot an unarmed Mexican teenager in the head with no consequences and no remedy is an injustice that besmirches America.  The crucial difference between a republican democracy and tyranny is that we reject arbitrary official killing.

I have successfully represented a client who won damages for excessive use of force by law enforcement officers.

I have testified before the state legislature for the end to qualified immunity and have taken on cases pro bono to challenge application of qualified immunity.

And I just recently lost a case in the U.S. Court of Appeals that well-illustrates everything that is wrong with qualified immunity.  The prison officials involved had violated the state statute and regulation guaranteeing confidentiality for prisoner calls to attorneys; they had deliberately bypassed telephone technology and protocols within the prison that were designed to prevent eavesdropping while simultaneously preventing abuse by call-forwarding; and yet a divided appellate court still granted qualified immunity because, in the court’s view, no prior court had ruled on those precise facts.  When a rogue operation in violation of protocols and state law violates the constitutional rights of another, no qualified immunity excuse should be accepted.  And when qualified immunity cloaks such officials wrongdoing, the result is to encourage officers who push the envelope.  This in turn further undermines public trust.

But one can be strongly supportive of essential police reforms and still recognize that the vast majority of police officers are good men and women serving an essential public safety role in a dangerous climate.  The grave error is to take the righteous demands for justice to the victims of police brutality and new rules to weed out miscreant police officers and translate that into an outright hostility to the police.  We must resist the delusional belief that defunding the police does anything other than embolden criminals and increase violent crime and multiply the number of victims of trauma.  Indeed, one of the causes of police misconduct is that many police departments are severely understaffed, which makes it harder to separate those officers who are unfit and more likely that officers will be over-stressed and fatigued to the point of making poor judgments.  The empirical evidence is solid that better paid and more professional police do a better job and that more police present in the community save lives and deter a surge in violent crime (see here).

So, yes, let’s speak up clearly to denounce official misconduct.  Let’s stand up and demand transparency when police use of force has occurred to ensure that abuses are detected.  Let’s never again ignore the subcultures of racism, a warrior mentality, and anti-professional behavior that exists within many police departments.

But let us also honor the heroes on our police departments who under the most trying circumstances today still report to the job and protect us.  When I see a police officer on the job, I try to say thank you and thereby remind them that the vast majority of us are not among the shrill voices of the anti-police haters.  Let’s take every opportunity to let the brave men and women who are persevering in police protection that we are proud of them.  They became cops to help people, and the people need to honor that when appropriate.

Three weeks ago, I experienced one of the most frightening episodes of my life.  Having been released from the hospital after total knee replacement surgery, I woke up at 2 a.m. having difficulty breathing.  As the situation grew worse and I became more and more panicked, my wife called 911.  The first person on the scene was an Eden Prairie Police Officer.  Now I know there are those who are demanding that police officers be removed from responding to such “non-emergency” calls that do not involve criminal activity.  But the reality is that through regional consolidation and increasing demands on emergency medical teams, the ambulance may be many more minutes away.  In my case, while I live in an outer suburb of the Twin Cities, the ambulance was coming from downtown Minneapolis.  But the local cops are always on duty.  That lone police officer was there immediately at our house, in about two minutes, provided me with oxygen (who knew that a cop would carry oxygen, but thank God he did), and provided calming and informative support, as much to my wife as to me.  Shortly after, fire department emergency personnel arrived to monitor the situation until the EMTs arrived.

As it turns out, I did indeed need emergency medical care.  I had a blood clot from the surgery, which demanded concentrated medical treatment.  It all came out all right, and I’m back home continuing my recovery, although it is somewhat more complicated for several reasons.

But I will never forget that police officer arriving immediately at our door.  Did he save my life?  That would be an exaggeration.  Would things have been much the same if we had simply waited several more minutes for the ambulance?  Almost certainly.  But having that person of calm authority there are at a moment of crisis for me mattered.  It mattered greatly.  I am thankful that Eden Prairie is still sending officers to such calls, despite the naysayers.

And in another recent situation, police being first on the scene made the life-and-death difference.  During the ongoing surge in violent crime in Minneapolis, five children have been shot in recent months, two of whom lost their lives.  A few days ago (story here), a three-year old was shot in the leg during a drive-by shooting, breaking his leg and starting severe bleeding.  Police arrived quickly and began first aid.  When it became clear that the ambulance would not come for several more minutes, these police officers transported the child directly to the hospital.  This police attention saved the boy’s life.  Minutes often do matter.  And we must have a police presence of sufficient size and capacity so that those minutes do not become life-costing delays.

I recognize that my own story is a very small episode in the overall scheme of things.  But these little things and bigger things as well play a significant role in building a trust between police and the community.  And if you spend any time on Facebook , you’ll find that there are multitudes who report encounters like mine and who confirm that cops are heroes as first responders.

God bless the Police Department.


Sisk, Greg | Permalink