Small-bore Solutions to Big-time Problems

As someone who spent close to a decade investigating police misconduct, researching and drafting policy recommendations, and working with stakeholders on issues of policing, I support the goals of the current movement, but am sometimes frustrated by the proposed resolutions. The current wave of activists wants to draw attention to the problem of overpolicing in this country—either as embodied by police shootings, primarily of young black men, or as the militarization of police departments, or as zero-tolerance policing masquerading as “Broken Windows” policing. So far so good. There is a crisis of overpolicing in this country, and for too long, nobody paid attention to it. I should know—a decade ago, much of my job involved trying to get newspapers to run stories about police misconduct more prominently.

But beyond publicizing the problem, what demonstrators are asking for most is increased criminal prosecution of police. But I don’t think that throwing cops in jail will deter police misconduct any more than throwing street-level offenders in jail deters muggings. And it kind of saddens me when people who criticize criminal over-enforcement in one context cry for punishment in the other. The criminal law is erratic in its application and filled with procedural complexities that can scuttle a case. Police defendants routinely get great lawyers, usually waive their right to a jury trial, and present technical defenses that are effective with judges. That’s how our criminal justice system, which is predicated upon the principle that it is better to let ten guilty people go free than to convict one innocent person, is designed. I understand that in most contexts it doesn’t fulfill that design. But I don’t feel comfortable demanding aggressive prosecution and stiff criminal penalties as soon as the accused is a police officer.

Sure, when Walter Scott or Laquan McDonald is shot while running or walking away from the police, murder charges should be brought. In both of these cases, murder charges have been brought. Just as charges have long been brought against police officers when the evidence is strong enough. It is true that it is hard to meet the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard to convict a police officer. But it’s hard to meet that standard for anyone; and it certainly isn't impossible. After all, the Manhattan District Attorney won a homicide conviction against Bryan Conroy for shooting Ousamane Zongo in 2005, and the Eastern District of New York convicted three cops in the Louima case. Cops have long been routinely indicted and convicted on perjury charges based on video and audio recordings.

What’s more interesting to me is what we can do to limit police misconduct in the first place, rather than how we punish it once it happens. Demilitarizing police departments and ending policies like stop-and-frisk can improve police-community relations, but most civilian encounters that go bad come from police who are responding to a call. And what I saw, over and over again, is that police officers are more likely to make mistakes when they respond to a call with insufficient or inaccurate information. And those mistakes can be lethal.

Most often, officers are given inadequate information because they speed to a scene after hearing a radio code—and little else—from their dispatcher. The woman who made the call that led to Henry Louis Gates getting detained in his own living room said she was calling because her neighbor urged her to, and that it looked to her like the guy had lost his keys and was trying to get into his own house. When Khiel Coppin’s mother called 911, Coppin could be heard in the background saying he had a gun, but his mother told the operator that she thought he didn't. And when a bystander called 911 to say that Tamir Rice was pointing a gun at people in an Ohio park, she said that the gun was “probably fake.” But none of the officers were given all the information that they could have been. They were only given a numbered code (say, 10-52-K, which means in New York that there is a dispute and there is a knife) and if they were lucky, a brief description.

It should be technologically feasible for any department to play the entirety of a 911 call to a responding officer on their way to the scene. I am not aware of any department that does so. While most departments get lots of federal funding for sophisticated equipment, the day-to-day technology of law enforcement is archaic. At the CCRB, we put in funding requests for digital recorders and were denied every year--as late as 2008 we were using manual recorders and cassette tapes for interviews. In many police precincts, they still have carbon copy forms to fill out, which means they still use a typewriter.

 New York allows officers to play back descriptions that were given to them by dispatch to quell civilians who believe they were improperly stopped.  This is a small and extremely powerful tool—when we studied thousands of stop and frisk complaints in 2000, we found that only one had been filed after an officer had played a description back over the radio. But this power still falls short of the easy ask I’m making—let dispatch play for the officers, in full, the call that they are responding to. Radio codes make a lot of sense when there are dozens of officers listening over a scanner. Each car cannot be troubled to hear the long-winded report of a civilian. But once a unit confirms that it is responding to a call, the officers deserve all the information the department can give them. They can hear the whole call, and learn from the caller’s tone, inflection, and language whether the caller fears for her life or is merely annoyed.

We can’t know for certain whether the officers responding to the Gates call, the Coppin call, or the Rice call would have behaved differently if they had been able to hear the full details and the tone of voice of these callers. But they might have. And I could recite dozens of other cases—none of them in the news—where officers might have taken a different stance if they had known everything that had been said to dispatch. And it certainly couldn’t do any harm. It may seem counterintuitive or unbearably small-bore to say that we should give more information to line officers responding to a call. But small-bore solutions are often the foundation of addressing big problems. Playing full calls to responding officers can give them the information they need to assess a situation properly and accurately. And most importantly, it could save lives.