Police officers are not infallible; they make mistakes like everybody else, sometimes in the line of duty.
But as the Legislature considers myriad police reform bills during this year’s session, the overriding goal must be to reinforce public trust in law enforcement.
A recent investigation by Seattle-based online news service Crosscut.com details how that trust is undermined. Crosscut identified at least 183 officers in Washington who are on what is commonly known as the Brady List – meaning past actions can impeach their credibility in a court of law.
“Officers end up on the Brady list for a variety of reasons, but the most common is dishonesty,” Melissa Santos reports. “About half the officers … were flagged by prosecutors because they appear to have lied or were somehow deceptive.”
A follow-up article details how an arbitration process allows officers who have violated their duty to remain in uniform. Often, an officer is fired for egregious actions or for falsifying evidence, only to be reinstated by an arbitrator.
As The Columbian has reported: “Some arbitrator decisions reinstating police officers terminated for criminal activity or alleged criminal activity have called into question whether the arbitration system serves the interest of public trust in law enforcement.”
In one extreme case, a Washougal officer was demoted from the rank of sergeant after shocking a woman 27 times with a Taser while arresting her for failing to comply with dog regulations. Later, the officer was fired for punching a handcuffed man seated in the back of a patrol car. He was reinstated by an arbitrator who declined to consider prior bad acts.
Civilian control of police departments – through public involvement and through the Legislature – is essential. Effective democracy requires that police departments be beholden to the people, rather than autonomous entities.
That is the fundamental issue being considered in a variety of bills currently in the Legislature that would rethink the use of force by officers. It also is fundamental to protecting the vast majority of officers who nobly serve the public but are besmirched by stories of excessive force.
While professional loyalty and a shared recognition of the job’s difficulties are understandable among law enforcement, officers should recognize the importance of reform. Demonstrating to the public that bad officers will be removed from the force is essential to bolstering public trust, in turn easing some of the pressures that come with the job.
If an officer cannot be trusted to testify in a criminal case, that denigrates an entire department. If an officer who is fired for violating policy is reinstated by an arbitrator or secures employment in another jurisdiction, that defames an entire occupation.
Police are vitally important to civilized society. Calls to abolish policing or to slash budgets so that departments are unable to perform their jobs simply distract from important discussions.
It is beneficial that such discussions are being held in Washington and throughout the nation. It is past time that we take a close look at police oversight and work to bolster the public’s faith in law enforcement.
That requires an examination of the use of force, how officers interact with communities of color, police training such as de-escalation tactics, and the burden of having officers act as social workers in dealing with homeless people or the mentally ill.
Improving policing in our communities must include removing people who are not fit for the job.