Could Police Reform Come From The Ballot Box?
August 24, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Minneapolis might become a test bed for police reform if a new measure before voters this November is approved. The city council initially voted 9 to 3 against it, with the city attorney stating it would be in conflict with state law. A judge disagreed with that notion and ordered it placed on the ballot. For activists from Communities United Against Police Brutality and the Committee For Professional Policing, it’s a simple idea: Make cops buy their own liability insurance, just like doctors or lawyers.
Instead of taxpayers paying for police misconduct, let cops be financially accountable for their own actions. The city can pay the base rate for coverage which helps them against claims by the police union that it violates contract terms. Individual cops would be responsible for increases resulting from their own misconduct lawsuits. Making professional liability insurance a condition of employment could result in problem cops being unable to afford insurance and financially forced out of a job.
Sounds simple right?
City councils, mayors, prosecutors are all political creatures. Holding police accountable can invoke the wrath of powerful police unions. Cops don’t have any incentive to change their ways because they’re not the ones who have to pay if they get sued for their abuse or misconduct. A measure like this could change that; rotten cops might cause an increase in everyone’s premium, forcing cops to police themselves. Watching innocent people harmed may not be enough of an incentive for a cop to stop a brother cop from engaging in violence, but money talks.
Certainly the fear of being priced out of your occupation should be enough to curtail bad behavior, but if others are affected, it’s changes the focus of the team. If you’ve ever played a team sport and coach made everyone run laps because a few teammates were screwing around, you know how long that behavior lasted. The group dynamic shifts from supporting your teammates to stopping them from making your life miserable.
Of course, not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Who wouldn’t like a simple, effective approach to solving the problem of police misconduct? Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis wouldn’t:
I always equate police work to, like, basketball. If you’re not getting any fouls, you’re not playing hard enough.
Kroll feels that:
Anybody can get in the squad car and drive around and put the blinders on, and not investigate suspicious circumstances, if you don’t do that proactive police work, your likelihood of being sued is a lot less
This sounds suspiciously familiar; a bit like the arguments against being allowed to film the police. No other institution seems to be suffering from any condition wherein their members suddenly find themselves unable to do their job properly every time there is a call for scrutiny or accountability. It’s an amazing phenomenon.
Resistance from the police can be expected but the judicially created concept of qualified immunity already stands in the way of cops being sued as individuals. This immunity protects cops from suit unless the act in question violated a “clearly established law of which a reasonable officer would be aware.”
So unless there’s already been a significant ruling on a certain kind of conduct, then the cop can’t be sued, even if it’s outrageous to any other “reasonable” human being or even if a constitutional violation actually occurred. It’s possible that qualified immunity is getting easier for cops to claim and that the threshold for claiming immunity might now be even lower since the Supreme Court decision in Stanton v. Simms where the court stated:
There is no suggestion in this case that Officer Stanton knowingly violated the Constitution; the question is whether, in light of precedent existing at the time, he was “plainly incompetent” in entering Sims’ yard to pursue the fleeing Patrick.
How many courts are going to jump on the “plainly incompetent” bandwagon where you can only deny qualified immunity by labeling the officer in this way? That’s hard to tell only a couple years past the decision, but it doesn’t bode well.
Come November, the voters in Minneapolis can decide to begin their experiment or not. Plenty of people will be watching if the measure passes. If it does, you can be sure there will be some serious resistance because cops have long enjoyed having the tax victims pay for their mistakes and they’re not about to give that up without a fight.