How do corrupt police officers get away with crimes?

An Alabama police officer reportedly wanted to murder a local resident and make it look like a case of self-defense. The murder didn't happen, but the officer wasn't charged.

Eduardo Munoz
A man carries a U.S. flag while people take part in the Million People's March Against Police Brutality, Racial Injustice and Economic Inequality in Newark, New Jersey July 25, 2015.

A police officer in Alabama proposed murdering a black resident and creating bogus evidence to suggest the killing was in self-defense, the Guardian reported, Tuesday.

Officer Troy Middlebrooks of the Alexander City Police Department kept his job after authorities there paid the resident, Vincent Bias, $35,000 to avoid being publicly sued over the incident, according to The Guardian.

Bias received his payment after a secret recording of Middlebrooks’ remarks was played to the city’s police chief and the mayor. The intended victim told The Guardian, “This town is ridiculous. The police here feel they can do what they want, and often they do.”

Bias’s observations are reflected in national statistics.

Five-Thirty-Eight found allegations of police misconduct rarely result in charges. They cited a report from the National Misconduct Reporting Project, in which researcher David Packman found of more than 8,300 misconduct accusations (involving almost 11,000 officers) in his database from April 2009 through the end of 2010, 3,238 resulted in legal action. 

Excessive force was the most common type of accusation; 15 percent involved firearms.

So what affects whether police get away with crime?

Todd H. Oppenheim, who has been a public defender for 10 years in Baltimore, said the legal process – from judges to internal reviews – is too lenient on cops in an op-ed on Baltimore Brew.

Mr. Oppenheim said he has handled thousands of criminal cases but can count on one hand the number of times a judge reprimanded an officer for illegal actions:

“Even when a judge grants a motion and finds police behavior illegal, nothing happens to the officers. Their pay isn’t docked. They don’t have to answer to a supervisor. Internal police reviews are a joke, and civilian review boards lack the teeth to impact anything.” 

The American Civil Rights Union is unsettled by the lack of metrics to evaluate police misconduct.

Jamil Dakwar, Director of the ACLU’s human rights program, said the lack of transparent data on how many officers are convicted or dismissed when faced with charges stunts reform and grants police impunity.

How can states look into allegations of misconduct with care?

Some say they should look to Newark’s new cop watch board.

The ACLU praised the initiative, which created “a strong and independent civilian complaint review board to review allegations of police misconduct,” and was signed into law by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka in May.

“Not only will it have the power to subpoena records and police officer testimony, it will have the rare power to make its disciplinary decisions stick. In order to reject the review board's findings, the police director must determine that the board committed 'clear error,' a high standard to meet. The board will also audit department policies and procedures, and it will issue public reports of data on interactions with the public.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also recently took steps to strengthen the legitimacy of police misconduct investigations.

The Wall Street Journal reported that "New Jersey county prosecutors now must disclose the findings of any use-of-force investigation even if the case isn’t presented to a grand jury for consideration.”

Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman released the rules as part of an announcement that the state will spend $4 million to equip state troopers and local police officers with body cameras to capture policing encounters, according to The Journal.

The cost of police misconduct may also take money from taxpayers. The $35,000 paid to Bias in the Alabama case alludes to a much bigger cost.

A recent Wall Street Journal article found the 10 cities with the largest police departments paid out $248.7 million last year in settlements and court judgments in police-misconduct cases, up 48 percent from $168.3 million in 2010.

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