The worst thing for the reputation of law enforcement is a dirty, corrupt, or violent officer.
A very small percentage of police officers are “bad apples.” But “one bad apple can spoil the bunch.” A “bad apple” in law enforcement undermines public support for the police and taints the reputations of good officers.
I am not “picking” on police. There are “bad apples” in every profession and organization. “Bad apples” include politicians, lawyers, doctors, accountants, sailors, soldiers, teachers, clergy, and even police, prosecutors, and judges.
Tragically, in over 40 years in the criminal justice system I am personally aware of officers prosecuted for: rape, armed robbery, forced oral sex, drug possession and sales, interstate transportation of narcotics, grand theft, evidence tampering, destruction of evidence, planting evidence, perjury, torture, assault with a deadly weapon, domestic violence, child pornography, and witness tampering and intimidation.
For the sake of the police and the public, these corrupt and violent police officers must be quickly identified and removed.
Barrier: Police investigating themselves
Two things stand in the way of this police reform. The first barrier to quickly identifying and removing “bad apples,” is allowing police to investigate themselves. History and experience have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of self-monitoring.
Most police departments do not have a totally independent internal affairs department. Complaints of excessive force are investigated by fellow officers. There is an inherent bias and conflict.
I know an officer with a extreme violent “attitude.” He bragged that he survived 20 internal affairs investigations for excessive force.
When a defendant is prosecuted for resisting arrest or battery on an officer, his attorney can raise the defense of police misconduct or excessive force. In such cases, judges are allowed to privately review the officer’s personnel records for similar complaints. The judge then discloses the names of other complaining parties who might corroborate the defendant.
I have reviewed dozens of police personnel files. I was gratified that just a handful of officers had complaints involving misconduct or excessive force. Most officers had no complaints at all.
Some formal complaints were so minor, they were almost laughable:
- “The officer’s uniform was wrinkled.”
- “The officer was impolite.”
- “The letters on the officer’s name tag were too small for me to read.”
The “five-complaint” officer
One case stands out. The officer’s personnel file had 5 separate complaints for excessive force. His fellow officers exonerated him in each case. They believed the officer, and they found that the complaining party and eyewitnesses, in every case, were “not credible.”
When I reviewed the complaints, it was obvious that the alleged misconduct in each case was almost identical. There was a clear pattern of excessive force. The complaining parties were independent of, and corroborated, each other. Moreover, the alleged police misconduct in my pending case had the same M.O.
After disclosing the names of the complaining parties to the defense attorney, the D.A. dismissed our case, instead of going to jury trial, where the officer’s history of violence would come out.
Barrier: Police Unions
The second obstacle to quickly identifying and removing bad cops is the police union. Because of unions, removing a “bad apple” from the force is herculean task.
Police unions are very powerful. Politicians fall all over themselves to obtain the endorsements of public employee unions for their campaigns. This is especially true of law enforcement endorsements. The politicians obtain, and retain. police union endorsements by promising to increase police pay and benefits and “job security.”
The worst police attitude
I had a jury trial where the police officer witness had the worst attitude and biggest chip-on-the-shoulder I have ever seen.
The defendant was charged with resisting arrest. Surprisingly, the defense attorney had not filed a motion for me to review the officer’s personnel records for complaints of violence. The officer was the first witness for the district attorney (D.A.).
D.A.: What is your full name?
Officer (sarcastic tone): You already know that.
D.A.: Your honor, will you order the officer to answer the question?
Judge: Just answer the question.
Officer (sarcastic tone): My name is Michael P–
D.A.: By whom are you employed?
Officer (pointing to his uniform): Isn’t it obvious!
D.A.: Your honor, please order the officer to answer the question?
Judge: Just answer the question.
Officer (with attitude): I am employed by the H- Police Department.
D.A.: Were you on duty as a police officer on the evening of . . .?
Officer (sarcastic tone): What does it say in the police report?
D.A. (exasperated): Your honor, can you please order the officer again to answer the question.
Judge (firmly): Just answer the question. If you don’t answer the questions you’re going to be here forever.
Officer (sarcastic): So what! I’m getting paid overtime.
At that point, I felt like hitting the officer with my gavel. However, he was very big and buff, and he had a gun.
Instead, I declared an early evening recess. I hinted that the defense attorney might want to make an oral motion for me to review the officer’s personnel records. He made the motion, and I granted it.
The next morning, before trial, I met with a police captain in my chambers to review the officer’s personal file. I discovered a plethora of complaints for misconduct for slugging, slapping, spitting, threats, and vulgarity. Many of the complaints were filed by his fellow police officers.
I asked the captain, “Why is he still on the force?” The captain replied sheepishly, “We have to wait until we get enough evidence to overcome the union’s defense.”
The D.A. summarily dismissed our case. The D.A. alerted his colleagues to avoid filing criminal cases where this officer was a necessary witness.
A few years later the officer was finally fired. He should have been fired years early. In the intervening years, he caused a lot of damage to the public and to the reputation of police.
I would think that police unions have an incentive to get rid of “bad apples,” because of the blow back from bad cops. These cops taint the reputations of the good officers. They hurt morale. They undermine public support. Instead, the unions erect almost insurmountable barriers, making it almost impossible to quickly identifying and removing “bad apples.”
Every police officer, every law enforcement agency, and the entire country, are now paying a heavy price because of few bad apples. There are even widespread calls to completely defund the police. Any effective police reform must include quickly identifying and removing the few “bad apples.”
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