Let’s Give Law a Chance

comments 6
Repairing the System / Repairing The Systen

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.”


  1. Rob Waring says

    Sometimes back to basics is best. It looks like New Orleans is taking this a step further and moving to prevention based on the study of good and evil by Ervin Staub. It remains to be seen whether their approach will leave officers to report the truth about each other’s contact. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/29/us/a-new-orleans-program-teaches-officers-to-police-each-other.html
    “The first is its goal: teaching officers how to be psychologically prepared to intervene when they see fellow officers on the verge of unethical behavior, no matter the circumstances. This will be taught in daylong courses and as a part of every course from driving skills to report writing, in an attempt at instilling the approach that goes beyond what any police department has tried, said Jonathan S. Aronie, who was judicially appointed to oversee the department’s adherence to a federal consent decree.
    The second is the program’s origins. While the curriculum was developed by New Orleans officers and outside experts, its core principles are rooted in the work of Ervin Staub, a retired psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who knows as well as anyone the perils of passivity and the virtues of intervention.
    As a child in Budapest during World War II, Professor Staub and his family were hidden by a brave cleaning woman and later by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis. Professor Staub devoted his career to the study of good and evil, examining how genocides and other cases of group violence happen — in Nazi Germany, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and elsewhere — and why certain people choose to help”


    • Rob, thanks for hour comment. I did see that article in the NYT. I think the “educational” and the “disciplinary” approaches both have a role to play in changing police conduct. But I think that social science has made it pretty clear that the structure in which we act has much more influence on our behavior than we realize. Let’s say you are a professor at a law school about 10 years ago. The Dean announces there will be a 7 percent pay increase for all law faculty. He then mentions that increasing operating costs will require a 7 percent increase in tuition. I don’t think you would have heard much opposition to the tuition increase. And everyone would have left the meeting feeling pretty good about themselves.


  2. Ken Donnelly says

    John: do not share your optimism . Chicago firing resulted not from operation of law or justice, but rather only because the press had Rahm Emanuel by the balls. Will not see similar results in other incidents of police misconduct in other places.


    • Ken, if this proves to be a one time publicity stunt, I agree wholeheartedly with you. But I am hoping that we are on the cusp of real reform for two reasons. First, the public (especially the young) are fed up with reading stories of police abuse and no longer think the abuses are “exceptional.” Secondly, while victims’ families have not had much success seeing criminal convictions, they have been very successful in securing large civil lawsuit settlements. The NYT story I link in my post says that Chicago has paid out in the past few years 500 million dollars in settlements in cases alleging police misconduct. This is not only a moral question, but a fiscal disaster. But then, as you know, I’ve been wrong before.


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