As this nation is repeatedly confronted with horrifying instances of police shootings and police excessive force, it is important to consider the commonalities and patterns among the incidents so that we can strive to find a way to stop this unjustified violence. One detail that the media seems to frequently gloss over is the offending police officers’ history of past abuses. This absence is not surprising – complaints against an officer or his or her history of abusive tactics are often protected by the police department as private personnel information. Additionally, since most cities have police accountability systems that almost never find fault with officer shootings, the “bad apples” among the bunch are emboldened. In departments where there is a culture of violence, the lack of accountability or consequence for violence pushes everyone towards using excessive force. In looking at recent incidents of police misconduct, when the history of the offending officers is considered, the violence is unsurprising.
For instance, it turns out that both of the police officers responsible for the shooting death of twelve year old Tamir Rice had concerning track records that perhaps should have served as red flags. Recall, Rice was the boy who was shot while holding a toy gun. He was shot by Cleveland Police Department Officer Tim Loehmann within two seconds of Loehmann’s arrival on the scene (despite the 911 caller saying that the gun was probably a toy). It turns out that Loehmann’s personnel file included a letter by a Deputy Chief of Police stating that he could not follow simple directions and that his handgun performance was so erratic and dismal that the Deputy did not believe that any amount of time or training could correct Loehmann’s deficiencies. And Officer Frank Garmback, the officer who sped Loehmann to within a few feet of Rice, had a history of excessive force accusations. Garmback was accused in a civil rights suit of placing a woman in a chokehold, tackling her, twisting her wrist, and punching her, all after she sought police assistance towing a car that was blocking her driveway.
South Carolina Police Officer Michael Slager, the cop who gunned down Walter Scott after Scott fled a routine traffic stop, had a history of firing his taser at a man who was lying prone on the ground fully submitting to being handcuffed. Additionally, NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who killed unarmed Eric Garner as Garner gasped that he could not breathe, has been accused in the past few years by four separate black men of violating their civil rights. Three individuals (in two separate, unrelated incidents) claimed that Pantaleo made them strip and then touched their genitals, claiming to be searching for drugs. While these accusations obviously differ from the misconduct at issue in Garner’s death, they suggest a serious disregard for suspects’ civil rights. And, in a glaring example of a repeat offender in Illinois, scores of people were convicted based on testimony secured by Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara, an officer accused of violently coercing witnesses to testify falsely in more than forty cases.
In a disturbing case that has not garnered much national attention, ten San Bernadino, California sheriff’s deputies were caught on film viciously beating and kicking a suspect who fled when they tried to serve him with a warrant:
Not surprisingly, the local ACLU chapter notes that it receives regular reports complaining that the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department uses excessive force after an individual has surrendered or been handcuffed.
So what can we take from these patterns of abuse and violence? Imagine if rather than looking the other way during the earliest abuses, police departments retrained, reprimanded, and disciplined. Imagine if officers were encouraged to make sure that fellow officers respected the civil rights of all civilians instead of just adhering to a code of silence to cover up each other’s misconduct. Imagine if the bad apples were pruned from the tree. It is time to make that a reality.