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There are a vast wealth of carefully documented instances with video evidence of police misconduct in the US. Often times the departments internally investigate and find no wrongdoing, even when it's on video or issue a slap on the wrist and allow the officer to continue his job with little or no consequence, even as we watch video evidence with lawyers explaining that the police interactions are blatantly illegal. Often the victims sue and win, but the taxpayers cover this consequence rather than the officers.

Even after the nation broke out in massive historic protests of police misconduct, perhaps shining the biggest spotlight on the issue ever likely to occur, seemingly very little has been done to meaningfully address this problem.

It seems like every time I see the topic brought up, the obstacle to reforming the police departments involved is

"The police unions are too powerful."

and

"Police are sheltered from consequence by qualified immunity."

But neither of those things seem to have solutions obvious to a layperson, as both of them have a fairly clear role in allowing police to do their jobs and protect their rights. On the other hand, clearly many police departments and municipal governments can't be reliably counted on to hold officers accountable. So I'd like to ask:

How can police be held accountable for wrongdoing without deterring their ability to enforce the law? To narrow down the scope of this question, I'm looking for political avenues at the state federal level of government.

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Most police are local while you ask about federal remedies.

  • The federal legislature could decide to deny subsidies and support to local law enforcement agencies which do not meet their definition of "professionalism." Currently local police departments get e.g. cheap ex-military equipment from the federal government.
  • The federal legislature could decide on a more assertive interpretation of legislative powers in section (5) of the 14th Amendment to protect the liberties enumerated in section (1). Doing so would certainly be challenged in court, and it might not pass.
  • The federal legislature could decide to boost public defenders who provide high-quality legal representation to possible victims of police misconduct, e.g. through scholarships or student loan forgiveness tied to subsequent work in public defender's offices, or by making such experience career-enhancing for applicants to prestigious federal jobs. A very long-term proposal.

But I think you are looking at the wrong level for the solution. If the local level resists the changes, all you get is bureaucratic infighting.

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  • The reason I chose a federal focus as opposed to a local one is that a typical person in the US commonly travels between many different towns and cities, and even states. With a local approach to the problem, a movement by the local voters to reform may work, or it may not. Some towns and cities may be lucky enough to have dedicated activists pushing for change, while others may not. If even a third of the municipalities fail to reform, the typical citizen will still face this problem as they travel even short distances.
    – J.Todd
    Jan 19 at 5:55
  • @J.Todd not every municipality NEEDS to change though. Not every city has abusive police.
    – Ryan_L
    Jan 19 at 6:21
  • @Ryan_L I'd have to see some data on that to know whether that's accurate. Sure not every, but what percentage? It's probably hard to say since the police aren't necessarily going to give us accurate data about complaints, right? With so many across the nation protesting this year for so long, I think it's reasonable to suspect most cities have a police conduct problem.
    – J.Todd
    Jan 19 at 6:31
  • @J.Todd protests are not proof of problems. In Lancaster, PA, people protested about the shooting of Ricardo Munoz. He was shot and killed during a mental health call, he had threatened himself and others with a knife. Police released bodycam footage of the shooting, Munoz charges the officer, knife raised in a stabbing motion, the moment he sees him. You can watch the footage for yourself: youtu.be/CHBeRPxZ6KE They also protested the shooting of Dreasjon Reed. Reed livestreamed himself driving around shooting at random houses, then at the police, who shot and killed him.
    – Ryan_L
    Jan 19 at 6:46
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    @Ryan_L, the best measures back the police when they are right, mentor them when they are wrong and could not know better, and come down on them like a ton of bricks when they are wrong and should have known better.
    – o.m.
    Jan 19 at 7:48
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One answer that seems clear is that qualified immunity is created politically (legislation). It can be changed politically as well.

Change doesn't need to mean revoking it - but it might be that change could trim the ability to defend actions which were reckless or otherwise deemed inappropriate by the standards of this decade. It could thereby change police practice nationally in response to certain situations no longer providing the immunity they used to.

However the interaction of state and federal branches of legislation, justice and law enforcement is an issue. It may be that financial/funding pressure is the main incentive in reality. I don't know that answer, though. A lot comes down to division of powers and the extent of leverage.

I'm not sure if that means legislation (congress) or executive order, I suspect more the former as an executive order is more likely to relate to interpretation than outright modification of what the law says, but I don't know.

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