Editorial: “I can’t breathe.” A flawed justice system perpetuates police violence.

“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African American, repeated this phrase while NYPD police officer Daniel Pantaleo held him in an illegal chokehold in Staten Island, New York. The conflict, which was caught on camera, arose after Pantaleo confronted Garner in the street for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. It ended with the police officer choking Garner to death.

This tragedy is just one example of white police officers perpetrating violence against black civilians. However, while recent events regarding police violence point to a tendency of racial profiling and excessive use of force, they also lead us to an equally, if not more pervasive problem: regardless of the nature of the crime, police in the United States are not held duly accountable for misconduct.

A possible explanation for this lack of accountability could be that the United States has no requirement for reporting police misconduct. In the state of California, the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights (POBR) allows police departments to keep official filings of misconduct as well as details of internal investigations from the public. In fact, all but five states (Georgia, Ohio, Minnesota, Nevada, and South Carolina) have restrictions in place with regard to public viewing of police records, and 21 states mandate that police records are completely closed to the public. This means that in at least 21 states, a police officer who commits a crime can remain completely anonymous if protected by the department for which he or she works.

The small amount of data about police misconduct that actually is available is shrouded in uncertainty — an unsettling prospect considering the recent fatal police shootings that have been at the forefront of public scrutiny. While California has some of the strictest restrictions on police misconduct of any state in the nation, this obscurity of data is evident throughout the country, even in large cities such as New York City where conflict between police forces and criminals is relatively high. According to an analysis done by the New York Daily News in December of 2014, a minimum of 179 people have been fatally shot by on-duty police in New York City since 1999. The number of fatalities was released with a disclaimer that not all incidents were reported; the study was pieced together from projects such as the Prison Reform Organizing Project and the Stolen Lives Project, the NYPD’s annual firearms discharge reports, press reports, and court documents. NYPD declined to comment on the study and, in fact, has not submitted information on officer-involved deaths to the FBI since 2006.

The fact that such basic information is not readily available to the public, or even credibly accounted for, hints at a significant flaw in the system that our society depends on for security. If police shootings aren’t recorded, then it is impossible to gather sufficient evidence to implement fair trials of police officers.

Generally, legal experts agree that it is fairly easy to indict a defendant in a trial. According to University of Illinois law professor Andrew D. Leipold, “If the prosecutor wants an indictment and doesn’t get one, something has gone horribly wrong. It just doesn’t happen.” However, the statistics regarding officers of the law tell a different story — almost no police officers are indicted. In Dallas, Texas from 2008 to 2012, only one officer was indicted out of 81 police shootings heard in front of a grand jury. Furthermore, out of the 179 recorded New York shootings, three officers were indicted and zero jail time was served.

From a legal standpoint, the special treatment of police officers is apparent. An act that would be classified as murder if performed by an ordinary civilian can be considered acceptable for the police. Of course, officers are supposed to protect themselves and citizens, even if deadly force is necessary. But they are supposed to protect the suspects, as well. The selling of “loosies” (as was the crime of Eric Garner) does not warrant an illegal chokehold. Police need to conduct themselves in a thoughtful, respectful manner, and not rely on superfluous and illegal force.

Recent events such as Garner’s case and the Ferguson tragedy have brought this issue into the national spotlight. President Obama is taking steps to equip all police officers with  body cameras (in addition to the already required dashboard cameras on police vehicles), and recently, more and more statistics are being released to the public. This might encourage police to act professionally, as they know they will be recorded. Yet, the entire Garner incident was recorded on camera, and prevented nothing. These methods will not prevent police brutality but only capture an image of what has already happened. Cases like that of Garner and the infamous 1991 killing of Rodney King by LAPD officers, both of which were captured on camera and led to no indictment for the officers involved, show that even though cameras provide evidence of violence, they do not ensure indictment or punishment for such actions.

Therefore, the solution should be in the courtrooms, not solely at the scene of the crime. Cameras do not show the pattern of misconduct needed for a police officer to be put to trial. Obviously, cameras are not enough — the law itself needs to change. One unnecessarily violent act should be enough to prove someone unsuitable for duty. Furthermore, records need to be released to the public. This will discourage violent acts and encourage the police department to ensure its members are fit for duty.

Power is given to police with very little or no restraint. We are brought up as children to trust police, to call 911 if there is an emergency. We are taught to trust the men and women in blue. For the most part, we still can. The actions of the few do not reflect the goals of the many, but the standing of police in society means that even a small number of deadly incidents involving police are blown out of proportion by the media. We cannot forget the officers who give their lives for good, as they far outnumber their counterparts that abuse the badge and gun.

Above all, the understanding should be that if a person kills someone, ending a human life in a preventable situation, that individual should be punished. This is true for everyone: civilians, government officials, and especially police officers. Law enforcement officers have a responsibility to protect the public, criminals, and themselves simultaneously. Their accountability should reflect this extensive responsibility. Power given to police is used more often than not for extreme good — but the small percentage that isn’t must be checked. We need to stop the few who cast a shadow on the police force as a whole. We need to hold police officers legally accountable for their actions.

Edit (3/5/15): Rodney King was not killed, but rather beaten, by police officers.

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