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The growing cost of police misconduct

Melvin B. Miller
The growing cost of police misconduct
“Now that all our actions are going to be recorded, I want only prize-winning close-ups.” (Photo: Dan Drew)

Americans have always expected their police officers to be a bit rough and tough. After all, that was thought to be the demeanor required to confront offenders. However, the Knapp Commission investigation of police corruption in New York in 1970 induced the public everywhere to cast a more watchful eye on possible police misconduct. Since then there has been a belief that it is time to change the culture of the police force.

African Americans have steadily held to that view. After all, black men too frequently suffer on the painful end of police brutality. In addition, the black community has become aware of improper police relations with local criminally-oriented citizens. As a result, many in the community have lost respect for the police and law enforcement.

This change in attitude extends beyond the black community. The Rampart District cases in Los Angeles in the 1990s certainly did not enhance the police reputation for propriety. The federal district court judge even permitted those cases against the LAPD to be brought as criminal enterprises under the Rico statute.

The increasing cost of judicial judgments is now causing major cities to reconsider the proficiency of the police. Chicago has paid $521 million to victims of police impropriety since 2004. According to The Wall Street Journal, 10 cities with the largest police departments paid out $248.7 million in 2014 alone. Also, mismanagement that could provoke a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice could be prohibitively expensive.

After the brutal police beating of Rodney King, caught on videotape on March 3, 1991, Congress authorized the Justice Department to investigate civil rights violations by municipal police departments. Since 1994 there have been 67 such investigations, which seem to be interminable and expensive. Almost every department under investigation ends up hiring a new chief of police. The terms of a settlement or court order also are expensive. They usually involve improved training, increased transparency, independent oversight and investigation of uses of force.

Citizens also have begun to wonder whether the substantial salaries for the police are justified in view of their non-professional performance. In Boston, for example, 52 police officers were paid more than $250,000 last year, with one lieutenant receiving $348,000. At the rate of pay for police officers in major cities, the public has the right to expect much more. After all, the police are technically still public servants.