San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe makes a stunning admission in our front-page story detailing why so few law enforcement officers are charged with a crime when they hurt someone while on duty. The law, he admits, simply works in their favor.
This might come as a shock if you were raised to believe justice was blind and that all men were created equal. But not if you live with eyes wide open in this America.
We ask much of the people we endow with guns and badges. Too much. We expect them to be part of quasi-military units ready for armed combat as well as family therapists, medical first responders, homeless advocates, school counselors, dog catchers and ambassadors for their jurisdiction. We expect them to handle bad people who endanger society and won’t go quietly to jail. Alcohol and drugs sometimes complicate the job. Each call is different, and rarely do they go entirely as outlined in the police handbook.
One of the ways we’ve justified imposing this impossible task upon human beings is to give police free rein in the conduct of their duties. We let them work overtime in jobs that were bound to conflict with their sworn duty. We gave them qualified immunity from civil suits so long as they suggest their conduct was “reasonable.” We even let them kill people; all they have to say is that they were in fear for their lives.
In San Mateo County, the numbers speak for themselves. Fifty-two officers have been investigated for 19 fatal use-of-force cases in the last 10 years. None have been charged, let alone faced a jury.
That was well and good so long as most of us never had to think about it. Then cellphones made that impossible. Now we all see what we would rather not, and the time has come to take a long look at ourselves in that black mirror we hold in our hands.
We might want to blame a few bad cops, and lord knows they are there. But the real problem is our own ambivalence to the problems of others. Ending police brutality requires more than a new chief and vetting new hires. We need systemic reform that reimagines our own expectations for the men and women in blue. Statistics show that less than 5 percent of police business involves investigating violent crime. We must offload the vast majority of what remains and give that work to other qualified professionals. Then we must rewrite the code to hold law enforcement responsible for the misuse of weapons. We must rethink when to call the police, and, most of all, we must stop expecting them to be our answer to every problem.
Stopping police violence can’t be contingent upon a brave citizen with a fully charged cellphone. The answer lies in a new understanding of justice for all.
— Clay Lambert