Policing the Police

Last week the Supreme Court said that it would be proper to just assume that unlawful police behavior would be dealt with appropriately by the authorities.

Item: One Frank Jude is bringing a civil suit against the City of Milwaukee because of the actions of its police officers.

Jude accompanied some people to the house-warming party of a police officer. After a while, Jude decided to leave. He was then accused of stealing a police officer’s badge and then all hell broke loose. Jude was swarmed by off-duty cops who beat him to a pulp. When Jude’s friends called 911, the on-duty cops arrived and they proceeded to take Jude into custody for resisting arrest.

The charges against Jude were quickly dropped as it became apparent that he was the victim, not the criminal. Now the investigation had to start over and no one in the government was anxious to handle it.

Prosecutors need the cooperation of the police department to do their job–so they look the other way much more often they should when it comes to allegations of police misconduct (it certainly must vary from one jurisdiction to the next). But the Jude beating would be the exception to that rule. The Jude case is known as a “heater,” which means the handling of the incident is going to be scrutinized by the news media.

The incident wasn’t caught on videotape, but the beating was outdoors and there were civilian eyewitnesses who have accounts that contradict those of the off-duty police officers. And this wasn’t just an unprovoked baton blow to the stomach. The beating was severe. This one can’t be ignored. Thus, the district attorney’s office indicted three officers and the police department fired them. A jury later acquitted the officers of criminal conduct. And Jude is now bringing a civil suit against the city.

Let’s anticipate the fact that Jude will be able to negotiate a substantial settlement from the city for his injuries. Some will say “the system worked.” That is, it was tragic event, but the bad apples were fired from the force and prosecuted. The victim brought a civil lawsuit, as is his right, and received a fair settlement. Case closed.

On closer inspection, I think this case shows some severe problems and that the Supreme Court is just wrong to “assume” these problems away.

Here are a few points to note about this incident:

1. Police Actions at the Crime Scene. The police supervisor who arrived on the scene that evening sent the off-duty officers involved in the incident into the same house instead of separating them, as is the standard procedure.

2. The Actions of the Prosecutor. The district attorney had difficulty explaining his policy of waiting a few days before interviewing persons injured by the police while being arrested. Detectives normally want to interview crime victims as soon as possible while their recollection is fresh.

3. The Actions of the Defendants. Though off-duty, the men who beat Jude say they were “acting as police officers” when they used force against him. On this view, they were investigating a theft and Jude was the suspected culprit. Though Jude was unarmed and outnumbered, these cops went into court and thought they could credibly claim that what they did was legal and proper.

4. The Actions of the Police Witnesses.

A. The off-duty cops who were on the scene, but who were not charged, were key witnesses. Although a half-dozen non-police witnesses saw kicking and beating, none of the police witnesses saw that. They were defense witnesses.

B. A few on-duty cops who arrived on the scene testified for the prosecution about what they saw. Because of their cooperation, they told the court of retaliation within the police department. One officer took an early stress-related retirement.

5. Media Exposes Dysfunctional Police Bureaucracy.

A. After the scandal broke, the news media found that one of the cops that was charged had a questionable background. The police department promised to put tougher procedures in place for prospective police recruits.

B. Because one of the officers charged was involved in another controversy, the media asked what procedures were in place to track potentially abusive cops. The police chief responded by saying that she really wanted to have such a system in place.

Some will argue that the exclusionary rule, which was the subject of this week’s Supreme Court ruling, is still a bad idea. After all, the exclusionary rule would not have done a thing for Jude or other victims of police misconduct. One answer is that there is nothing ill-advised about having multiple “checks” upon the police powers of the government. After all, it might be years until another “heater” case comes along in Milwaukee. And what about other jurisdictions around the country? Is it wise to assume that there are only a handful of dysfunctional bureaucracies out there?