The newly installed director of the Secret Service went before a congressional committee in the midst of a national firestorm over scandals at the elite agency charged with protecting the president and other high-ranking U.S. officials. With Congress and President Obama both breathing down his neck, Joseph Clancy still tamped down expectations that he could institute needed reforms quickly. “It’s going to take time to change some of this culture,” a frustrated Clancy told members of a House Appropriations subcommittee on March 17.
If change is inevitably slow at a high-profile federal agency even under a national spotlight, change is likely to be slow as well for state and local law enforcement agencies under the spotlight because of the recent spate of killings of unarmed civilians at the hands of police officers. Even without reliable national statistics on the number of such episodes or the racial demographics of those involved one prediction seems safe to make: More black civilians will die, needlessly and perhaps unjustifiably, at the hands of white police officers during the next year.
Advocates of police accountability took encouragement from the most recent episode: the death of the traffic-stopped civilian Walter Scott, shot in the back by North Charleston, S.C., police officer Michael Slager. The five-year veteran was charged with murder in the April 4 death after a bystander’s video recording plainly showed Slager shooting Scott repeatedly as he fled at full running speed.
The hero of the story is Feidin Santana, a Dominican immigrant on his way to work that Saturday, who pulled out his smartphone after he saw Slager and Scott struggling on the ground. Too late to record the struggle, Santana did capture damning images of Slager firing repeatedly at Scott as he ran, his back turned to the officer.
Santana turned the video over to Scott’s family even as he worried that his life might be in danger if his role became public. Once the video went viral, Slager was charged with murder on April 7 and fired from the police department. Later, authorities said that even before the video, investigators had suspicions about the much different account of the episode that Slager had given in his official report.
Videotaping of police encounters was a rarity two decades back when a bystander several floors up captured the beating of civilian Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1992. With camera-app smartphones now widespread, video evidence is not so rare. And if the moves toward police body cameras take hold, video evidence will become the norm instead of the exception.
Still, videotaping is no silver bullet for the problem of excessive and unjustifiable use of force by police officers. Despite the evidence in the Rodney King case, no Los Angeles officers were convicted in state or federal courts. Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island was captured on video, and the officers cleared by the local grand jury. Even in the new case, the gap in evidence will allow Slager and his attorney to construct a defense; a conviction is by no means a certainty.
Police accountability cannot be outsourced to the smartphone-carrying public or simply automated by mandatory body cameras for officers. Police culture itself needs to be changed, as police experts emphasized in news coverage last week.
Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, told NPR’s Audie Cornish that police training inculcates a “warrior mentality” in new officers. Videos of officers being beaten or killed teach the new officer the risks of hesitation in encounters with civilians, but Stoughton says the training “dramatically exaggerates the actual dangers of policing.”
David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and longtime critic of racial profiling, says the North Charleston episode illustrates that police fire their weapons reflexively when encounters go south and expect their departments to back them up. “What it says to me,” Harris told Politico national editor Michael Hirsh, “is that in the culture of that police department this is no problem.”
A half-century of police reform efforts since the 1960s teaches that local police departments resist change and public pressure is usually too weak to overcome that resistance. Congress and the Clinton administration sought to change that dynamic with a law passed in 1994 that gives the Justice Department authority to investigate police departments for “practices and policies” of violations of statutory or constitutional rights.
The Obama administration revived use of the law after it had lain mostly dormant for the eight years of the Bush administration. With strong support from Attorney General Eric Holder, the former civil rights chief Tom Perez, now secretary of labor, instituted high-profile investigations of departments from Seattle to East Haven, Conn., and Maricopa County, Ariz., to New Orleans. In Seattle and New Orleans, departments agreed to court-supervised reforms on recruitment, training, and oversight. In Arizona, Maricopa County’s combative sheriff Joe Arpaio predictably resisted.
The Justice Department, however, can do only so much. The civil rights division’s budget for police accountability was $12.2 million last year, Politico reported. It will take more than that, and more than a few videos, to change the police culture that still today routinely puts black lives at risk.