Thursday, January 8, 2015

Citizen Input in Law Enforcement

Recent events have brought to the forefront a great nationwide debate about conduct of police officers. There have been numerous suggestions how to hold police more accountable in their role to serve and protect. These suggestions range from changing the grand jury system to requiring special prosecutors when a police officer is accused of serious misconduct to simply requiring automatic indictment and trial of any police officer accused of abusing or taking the life of a citizen.

I don’t deny there are bad actors in every profession, mine included. It has been my experience that, short of murder, the first offense punishment for a peace officer having committed some minor crime is that he must resign his job and go to work for another police agency somewhere else. While I say it somewhat tongue in cheek, too often it has proven true. I have personal knowledge, for example, of two police officers who were caught red-handed hauling liquor from a bar at 2:00 AM. They were not fired but given the opportunity to resign. They soon became employed in a city not 20 miles away from where they had formerly worked.

While a great deal of attention becomes focused on peace officers--particularly when there is serious injury or death, and it is alleged the peace officer was guilty of wrongdoing--little, if anything, comes of lesser complaints by the public. About all a citizen can do about rudeness or downright bad conduct on the part of a policeman is to complain to that policeman’s superior.  In more cases than not, it results in a slap on the wrist and nothing more.

To deal with such conduct, in the past there has been a hue and cry to create police commissions made up of lay people. Several communities and several states have such bodies. Some work and some don’t. Unfortunately, citizen oversight committees too often become highly political and divisive for the community.

I think I have a better idea. Texas has an entity known as the Texas Commission on Law
Enforcement. This agency is made up of 9 board members and a small staff. It is the agency in Texas that issues the certification allowing a person to be a peace officer. It has limited authority basically allowing only investigation of serious complaints, giving tests, determining qualifications to be certified as a peace officer, and--in rare occasions--removing the certification from a person currently serving as a peace officer. My idea would provide citizens an avenue of complaint other than simply complaining to the sheriff about his deputies, or the chief about his police officers.

My plan would allow a citizen who was offended, or who believed he or she was abused by a peace officer--even in a matter circumstance--to file a complaint with the supervising officer of that law enforcement person and give them an opportunity to resolve or remedy the situation. If a citizen were not satisfied with the result, the citizen could then file a complaint with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement who could conduct an investigation and hearing and be armed by the Legislature with authority to administer a large range of remedies--from dismissal as a peace officer to a reprimand or temporary suspension.

The Legislature would be required to grant more funding to the agency--to allow an enlarged investigatory staff and provide hearing officers--and to give the authority of the wide range of remedies available to address misconduct or bad behavior by a police officer.

This procedure could alleviate frustration of citizens who feel they have no real voice in addressing the behavior of law enforcement people. It would also remove it from local politics and take it out of the hands of a county prosecutor or district attorney who is criticized for not being fair toward the people he or she works with every day.

Current citizen frustration in being unable to have their complaints heard about the conduct of law enforcement has led to numerous frivolous lawsuits, or lawsuits with merit, which in turn costs cities and counties millions of dollars. This plan would have the effect of creating an administrative remedy to avoid misunderstandings, to weed out folks who have no business being law enforcement officers, and to empower ordinary citizens who should be the objective of a peace officer’s mission to protect and defend.

While we hear of the major allegations of misconduct such as shooting an unarmed citizen, addressing minor areas of misconduct should lead to better policing and more faith in our policing agencies on the part of citizens.

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