Police Accountability

I’ve been reading a case decided in the European Court of Human Rights. It involved opposing libel suits arising out of claims of police brutality in Bergen, Norway.[1] The opinion of four judges, whose names I will not try to pronounce, struck me. The judges pointed out that the purpose of the libel suits brought by the police officers “was to suppress the debate on this issue….” But they pointed out that the government has “a monopoly over force” and that monopoly “also entails the danger of force being abused to the detriment of the very values it is meant to uphold.” Therefore “abuse of force by officials is not just one of many issues of broad general interest.” Instead, “it is … a matter of primary concern in any society.” Keeping authorities in check is particularly important for a democracy. And the ability to hold the states’ use of force in check requires protecting those who raise the alarm.

The European Commission for Democracy Through Law observed that “In numerous states … [there is a] general ban on the creation of para‑military formations.”[2] That’s because they are armed and dangerous.

So the judges in the Bergen case emphasized the “vital need for every society to exercise strict supervision over all use of force in the name of society.” Critics of official abuse need to be protected. The 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment specifically protects the right to complain.

But not about the New York City police.

It’s time we learn that there are wonderful police, and there are terrible police. But the culture of silence by which they protect each other against any and all criticism makes the wonderful police into allies of the terrible police. They’re unaccountable to each other and they’re unaccountable to the rest of us.

You and I can’t go walk down the street saying that guy down there could be armed, so if he puts his hands in his pocket I’m going to kill him. That’s not self-defense; that’s murder. But the police, who have sworn to defend us, insist they have that right to kill on the mere possibility that someone could be armed with evil intent. They insist they do not even have to account for it or defend themselves – it is disloyalty even to criticize or call for an investigation as Mayor de Blasio has done.

What the police are doing is showing that they are a special interest, not public servants. Everyone else is accountable, from the President down to the janitor, everyone is subject to investigation and criticism, everyone’s methods are open for revision. Heads of government departments and heads of corporations are accountability to us, to the public. But not the guys that claim the right to kill us. That has a clear meaning for me – I don’t trust them. They have a code of silence and self-protection and they just dare us even to question them. That means they should not be trusted. Just one more special interest trying to bilk the public. New York City’s Police have LOST my respect.

Soldiers in the military, regardless of politics, do not turn their backs on the Commander-in-Chief. That’s unacceptable. But it’s typical of the NYPD – they’re spoiled, dangerous and out of control.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 6, 2015.

[1] Opinion of Judges Kūris, Türmen, Strážnická and Greve, dissenting in Nilsen and Johnsen v. Norway, [1999] ECHR 23118/93[GC] (25 NOVEMBER 1999).

[2] Explanatory Report, incorporated as part III of Guidelines On Prohibition And Dissolution Of Political Parties, note 361 above, at ¶11, available at http://www.venice.coe.int/docs/2000/CDL-INF(2000)001-e.pdf.

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