When Feidin Santana recorded Walter Scott’s murder, his first thought was fear of reprisal from police. In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Santana said he was tempted to delete the video and move for his own safety. Though he ultimately gave the video to Scott’s family, who then turned it over to the press, he still fears reprisals. Like Scott’s family, Santana didn’t trust the police to do the right thing with the evidence, and why should he? He saw an officer, Michael Slager, shoot an unarmed man in the back, plant evidence on the body and stand calmly as fellow officers arrived at the scene and did nothing to help the dying man on the ground. Santana didn’t know who Walter Scott was, but he understood that what he had just witnessed was a crime committed by an officer of law, who would then go on to lie about what had happened in order to cover up a murder.
The story of Walter Scott’s death sounds like fodder for a “ripped from the headlines” TV episode. This must be a fluke, a freak occurrence, the exception to the norm. In a way, it is. Certainly the majority of police officers aren’t shooting unarmed people in the back and lying about what happened. But when it comes to police officers shooting citizens, the data gets murky. The United States has no central database of police shootings, much less of police misconduct. Yet the most publicized cases highlight the reality that it is never just the actions of one officer that contribute to a climate of widespread mistrust. And citizens can hardly be expected to come forward when officers can write a report saying that CPR was performed when it wasn’t, or drop a Taser near the victim to support a false story.
Whether the example is the Burge torture case in Chicago that spanned nine years of police brutality with 110 documented victims, the decision of Atlanta officers to posthumously frame 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston after she was killed during a botched “no knock” drug raid, or the bizarre attempt to frame Marcus Jeter for crimes he didn’t commit during a traffic stop in New Jersey, there’s no shortage of examples around the country that abuse of police power can happen anywhere. Factor in the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles, proof that officers with the New York Police Department planted drugs on suspects, recent Justice Department reports illustrating widespread problems with excessive force and biased policing in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland and Seattle, and it becomes clear why Mr. Santana didn’t feel he could trust the police. The problem isn’t just the officers that directly commit crimes. It’s also the officers that help them get away with it and the climate that encourages successive generations of officers to prioritize themselves over the public they are sworn to protect. Look at the shooting of Akai Gurley: The officer’s first instinct in that case wasn’t to see if anyone was hurt; it was to make sure that no one got in trouble for the dead person laying in the stairwell.
Police misconduct clearly isn’t as rare of an event as we’d all like it to be, though it does appear the majority of complaints are the result of actions by repeat offenders, the sad reality is that police officers aren’t likely to be charged for misconduct. That some officers are facing charges is the exception to the rule. For many — like Johannes Mehserle, who only served two years in jail after shooting Oscar Grant in the back — even a conviction doesn’t mean receiving more than a slap on the wrist.
Despite the physical harm done to victims of police misconduct, and the high financial cost of lawsuits for taxpayers, there is very little being done to curb the problem.
Police unions have a long history of fighting against corrective measures in ways that range from near riots to work stoppages. As a result, investigations of misconduct are often conducted by members of the same police department. These internal units are theoretically separate from the rest of the force, but members went to the same police academy, served in the same precincts, and are not exactly the unbiased objective investigators that would be needed. Even in places that have allowed for civilian oversight of these units, police commissioners often have a voice not only in their appointment but also in the disciplining of officers.
When there are so many egregious examples of abuse and such a clear conflict of interest in oversight of police misconduct, how can any citizen reasonably expect to be able to trust the police? Deaths of police officers have been on the decline for years, and as officers are caught planting evidence to justify brutality, it is only logical for people in heavily policed communities to be mistrustful of officers after a violent event. Video evidence debunked the claim that Tamir Rice pointed his toy gun at officers before he was killed, and video evidence showed William Melendez planting drugs on Floyd Dent after brutally beating him, but without that video evidence would anyone know what really happened? Before Slager was caught on tape planting his Taser on William Scott’s body, he was accused of using his Taser repeatedly on an innocent black man and lying about it. Melendez was named in 12 other brutality and corruption lawsuits. Timothy Loehmann, the officer who fatally wounded Tamir Rice, had been found unfit for duty by another police department. If this is what’s being caught on video, then what aren’t we seeing? How many people are like Feidin Santana, witnesses to police brutality and afraid to come forward?
When the system is the problem, individuals cannot be expected to counteract the problem alone, much less accept that the only countermeasures available are in the hands of those with a stake in maintaining the status quo. If you can’t trust the police to serve and protect, how can you trust them to maintain order within their own ranks? The argument that “not all cops are bad” only works if there’s a way to be certain that bad cops are being removed from service as soon as they are discovered, and that those who report their misbehavior have an assurance of safety. Just ask Ramsey Orta what it has cost him to turn in the police.