We are all unhappy about continuing stories of widespread police abuse of African-American citizens, but there seems to be no effective remedy available.
One egregious example was the police killing of seventeen year old Laquan McDonald in Chicago. McDonald was shot by officer Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke claimed McDonald was coming at him with a knife and he only shot in self-defense. Several of his police colleagues filed statements corroborating Van Dyke’s story. Then a police video was released showing that McDonald armed with a knife, but was walking away when Van Dyke shot him sixteen times. Van Dyke will go on trial on homicide charges, but persuading 12 jurors to find a police officer guilty beyond a reasonable doubt has proved to be a near impossible task. Will this ever end?
Maybe it will. Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson (photo) has recently filed charges against the officers who signed false statements about what they witnessed the night McDonald died. If a civilian review board finds that the officers did file false statements, they will be discharged. The policy is now clear: “If you’re a liar, you’re fired.” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/19/us/laquan-mcdonald-chicago-police.html
The moral to this story seems to be “when all else fails, try the law.” The whole idea behind the “rule of law” is that legal rules will be fairly and impartially applied to all citizens. Unfortunately, in our society this simple principle is not honored. The rules are over-enforced against minorities and under-enforced against the politically powerful, a category that includes the police. Superintendent Johnson has made a wise choice in demanding that police officers, like the rest of us, follow the rules if they want to keep their jobs.
Will this strategy work? We will have to wait and see. But I am hopeful. Unenforced rules are ignored. Up to now, an officer who witnessed illegal conduct by a colleague had been placed in an impossible situation. He knew there was no realistic fear of punishment for lying, but a certitude of social recrimination for turning in a colleague. And potential abusers were also aware of this imbalance. Now the incentive structure has been reset. “If you’re a liar, you’re fired.”
I think most Chicago police officers will accept that following the rules is part of the job. The others should find another line of work. Maybe I am guilty of naivete in thinking that fear of loss of a job and pension can prevail over the code of silence we are told is so strong in police culture. Still I am encouraged by some crude, but apt, advice that Theodore Roosevelt once offered: “If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”