CRIMINAL justice in America is not administered by a monolithic national police department. There are roughly 12,000 local police departments across the country employing more than 800,000 sworn law enforcement officers, that are as different as the cities, towns and villages they protect. Most police officers are competent and dedicated professionals who serve their local communities with courage and honor.
Unfortunately, as in any profession, the few rogue officers who stray over the line into criminality tend to get the bulk of the headlines. But unlike drug-peddling doctors or embezzling accountants, they are often protected from criminal prosecution by biased internal affairs investigations, police unions that circle the wagons, and qualified sovereign immunity policies.
Communities should not expect police departments to police themselves. Real accountability needs to come from outside, especially in cases when race is involved.
Public perceptions that all cops are racists are just not true. For one thing, about 13.3 percent of all police officers in the U.S. are African American, which is roughly the same as the percentage of African Americans in the general population. actually slightly higher than their percentage in the general population.
And as statistics compiled by the Washington Post show, the number of unjustified shootings of black males during confrontations with police last year is actually quite small in a country of 330 million people: Nine unarmed blacks (0.1 percent of all African Americans killed in 2019) were shot and killed by police officers last year, less than a fourth of the 38 who were killed by police in 2015. And a police officer of any color is 18½ times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer.
That said, nine unjustified shootings are nine too many. Policing needs to be lawful, transparent, and accountable. When it’s not, police misconduct can corrode a community just as acid corrodes metal. Any accusations of police brutality or the use of excessive force must be dealt with swiftly and fairly, but how best to do that while respecting the due process rights of both accused officers and citizens has long been a topic of intense debate.
One solution is civilian review boards that perform independent investigations of any excessive force or police misconduct allegations. There are three main models: investigator-focused, which use non-police civilian investigators to look into complaints against individual officers; audit-focused, which look at broader trends in policing rather than individual cases; and review-focused, which oversee the police department’s own internal affairs investigations.
But civilian review boards only work well if they are truly impartial and independent. And in the current agenda-driven climate where it seems that everything is politicized, the selection of board members is likely to be highly politicized, too. If that happens, and either police officers or citizens do not trust the integrity of the process, communities will find themselves back at square one again.
One possible way out of this impasse is a little-known legal provision that allows ordinary citizens to request a special grand jury with subpoena power to call witnesses and investigate government misconduct. According to the Virginia Supreme Court’s 2010 “Handbook for Grand Jurors,” a special grand jury “composed entirely of private citizens, is the one non-political body with legal authority” to investigate police or court corruption on behalf of those unfairly denied their constitutional rights.
A grand jury does not determine guilt or innocence, but it does decide whether the available evidence shows that there is probable cause that a crime has been committed and an indictment is warranted. When that happens, the criminal justice system takes over to prosecute the case.
But because grand jurors are randomly selected private citizens from the same community as the accused and the accuser, they are more likely than any police internal affairs department, elected prosecutor or civilian review board to make the right call.