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Police Accountability Essential But Tricky
By Michael Lowrey

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Jan. 30th, 2015

RALEIGH — The deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown during altercations with police officers have led to a heated national debate about the proper use of force by police departments. It has racial overtones, but it shouldn’t be a racial issue, as any American could become victim to police officers who may be poorly trained or badly supervised and all too quick to resort to force.

It’s also a difficult issue, exactly because what’s needed — effective, transparent oversight — goes against the very nature of police departments, whose operations and methods often are of necessity secretive.

Police work is inherently dangerous. Officers never know whether the next traffic stop they make will be their last, whether that domestic disturbance call might involve an abusive spouse with a gun and no desire to talk it out.

Along the way, officers will be forced to make many immediate life-or-death decisions. And even with the best training, they won’t always react in a manner, across thousands upon thousands of interactions with citizens, that 20/20 hindsight would suggest is best. In other words, in a nation as large as the United States, some level of police work somewhere will be questionable. There also will be those who latch onto any perceived police failings to push political agendas.

The overwhelming majority of police officers are dedicated, competent, and work very hard to make their community a better place. We should be grateful for their service.

Unfortunately, there are also bad cops out there. Some think that having a badge and a gun allows them to bully people. Some are racists. Others are simply corrupt. A few are sexual predators. Many more of them are poorly led, following poorly conceived policies.

There’s a major push to have more cops on patrol fitted with body cameras as a solution. Would this be useful? Probably. Could such cameras help build trust with the community? Possibly.

Could they help police and prosecutors build their case against certain suspects? Absolutely. Might they deter some forms of police misconduct? Sure. Would some people behave better toward cops simply because they know they are being recorded? Of course.

But would requiring police officers to wear body cameras — or use any technology — be a panacea? No. If a police department refuses to be open with its internal investigations involving cases of alleged excessive use of force, then merely having body cameras won’t satisfy residents who already distrust the police. The same would apply to police departments that don’t explain publicly disciplinary actions against officers.

Citizen review boards have been suggested as a means to address such concerns and provide public input about police methods. But there’s no agreement about how those boards should operate or what their goals should be.

Should they review only excessive force complaints or police practices generally? And merely creating such a board may be useless — Charlotte Mecklenburg has had one for some time, but it always has sided with the police because of the way the review process was structured. That hardly builds trust in the community.

There’s also a danger in the other direction. A powerful citizen review board may be dominated by those with an ax to grind against the police. If rank-and-file cops don’t buy into the process, if they see it dominated by those who use the process to generate media attention for themselves, then the result will be poor police morale, high turnover, and ultimately a less safe community.

Effective oversight is difficult to accomplish. But how to achieve it is a discussion that communities across the state and country need to have, not just now but continually.

Michael Lowrey is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.


Past Columns

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Jan. 30th, 2015
Police Accountability Essential But Tricky


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Jan. 12th, 2015
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Past Month Columns