Police violence and the special prosecutor

Twenty-five thousand people marched in New York City on Saturday because they were angry that police who kill unarmed, uh, suspects, aren’t prosecuted.  But they’re angry about more than that:  differential policing based on color, particularly the treatment of young black and Latino men.

The failure of grand juries to indict two police officers in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City was the spark, but a focus on indictments addresses only a very small part of the problem.

The challenge for activists, I wrote yesterday, is to find actionable demands to focus their efforts.  Here’s one: routinely appoint special prosecutors in cases of police violence. (See reports here, here, and here.)  The claim is that local prosecutors work closely with police, identify with them, and need to maintain good relations with the police department in order to do their work.  Special prosecutors are more likely to seek indictments and prosecute cases aggressively.

Maybe.  (It’s worthwhile to read the debate at the New York Times site.)

But juries don’t always follow crowds, and prosecuting individual officers whose behavior is especially awful does little to address larger issues in policing.

Maybe–the realistic prospect of facing criminal charges for say choking a suspect to death will deter police misconduct?  Maybe it will promote broader changes in police protocols?

I’m doubtful.

Major cities across the country pay out millions of dollars each year in civil judgments and settlements for police misconduct.  The Baltimore Sun reports that Baltimore has paid $5.7 million in such settlements in the past three years.  Radley Balko’s Washington Post summary reports large sums paid out everywhere:

The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this year that the city has payed out nearly half a billion dollars in settlements over the past decade, and spent $84.6 million in fees, settlements, and awards last year… Bloomberg News reported that in 2011, Los Angeles paid out $54 million, while New York paid out a whopping $735 million, although those figures include negligence and other claims unrelated to police abuse. Oakland Police Beat reported in April that the city had paid out $74 million to settle 417 lawsuits since 1990. That’s a little more than $3 million per year. The Denver Post reported in August that the Mile High City paid $13 million over 10 years. The Dallas Morning News reported in May that the city has forked over $6 million since 2011. And last month, Minneapolis Public Radio put that city’s payout at $21 million since 2003.

It’s hard to think that these massive sums make for any kind of deterrence; rather, the costs of settlements gets folded into the larger costs of running a city.  (See Richard Emery and Illann Margalit Maazel’s 2000 Fordham Urban Law Review piece for an analysis of how and why.)

So, right now there’s a possible and actionable focus. Is it enough?

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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