Riots have broken out in Ferguson following the news that Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, will not be indicted. Many have become fed up with police violence and a perceived lack of accountability in this country. While the urge to riot and protest legal action against Darren Wilson is understandable, a wider discussion should be taking place about what can be done about the disproportionate power police wield.
In addition to the worrying trend of police militarization, many areas of the country have police forces that seem fairly unaccountable for excessive violence or other problems. In Philadelphia, an inquiry was recently completed on 26 cases since 2008 where police officers were fired from charges ranging from domestic violence, to retail theft, to excessive force, to on duty intoxication. Shockingly, the Police Advisory Committee undertaking the investigation found that so far 19 of these fired officers have been reinstated. Why does this occur? The committee blamed the arbitration process.
In one recent case, a Philadelphia police Lieutenant was caught on camera punching a woman in the face during a parade because he mistakenly believed she threw a beer on him. You can see CNN coverage of the incident in the video below. Following the incident the officer was fired, but then reinstated after arbitration. He retained his Lieutenant rank.
While Darren Wilson doesn’t plan on going back to being a police officer, he hasn’t been fired yet. For PR purposes alone, can you imagine a private company failing to fire an employee who causes such disastrous fallout?
Another implication of police power is political. For example, the Miami-Dade police union recently blocked body cameras for police officers. And when Wisconsin limited collective bargaining rights for public sector workers it exempted police and firefighter unions. A similar bill earlier this year in Missouri, where Ferguson is located, would also have excluded police.
What can be done about excessive police power? I’d propose a few reforms. First, remove collective bargaining for police officers entirely. They should be employed at will, and should be able to be fired without any arbitration whatsoever. Workplace protections can be good for workers, but retaining the public’s trust in the police is far more important than making police officer be a nice job for someone.
Second, if a police officer shoots someone who is unarmed they should be fired even if they can prove they reasonably felt threatened. Self-defense can be a good reason to not bring criminal charges against a police officer for shooting someone, but it’s not necessarily a good reason to let them keep their jobs. The near constant stream of cases of police being too quick to shoot suggest their incentives right now lean too strongly towards shooting first and thinking later.
Maybe knowing they will lose their jobs with certainty will lead to less wrongful shootings. Even if it doesn’t, I think the public deserves to know when a cop shoots someone wrongfully they will be fired. When most people mess up at work their bosses don’t need arbitration to determine whether they can be fired. Even if the error was “reasonable” people can be fired just to please the customer. Police should be as accountable to the public as the rest of us our to our employers and customers. I don’t think “fairness” towards the police is a very important public policy concern relatively speaking.
The police are extremely powerful in this country. With the public’s trust justifiably falling, it’s time to strip them of job protections and political power that lead to unaccountability and injustice. Being a police officer should be the kind of job where if you mess up a little bit you get fired. This is not going to happen while police unions remain intact. If this means we have to pay higher salaries to find good cops then so be it.