OP-ED: Missing the Mark on Police Accountability in the U.S.

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Tracy Siska

Tracy SiskaFrom the Chicago Bureau:

There is little doubt to most of America just how distasteful police in America find it when citizens question their actions. Yet it’s amazing just how little accountability there is for the people who are tasked with holding the rest of us accountable for our actions.

Despite the ample window dressing that the election of a black president has put on race relations in America, there are obvious and deep divides along racial lines in America. The recent string of questionable deaths of black men at the hands of police officers has thrust this issue to the forefront in America.

For decades, police officials in our urban centers have talked about their goals to repair the relationship between their police departments and communities of color. After every brutality case that raises questions — or death of a black man at the hands of an officer — police officials and political leaders give longwinded speeches about how they are going to redouble efforts to fix the relationship with these communities. Then nothing of substance occurs and the issue is abandoned until the next high-profile incident.

The Chicago BureauIn 2014 the residents of Ferguson refused to quiet down after the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen shot by a white police officer. Their refusal to believe hollow promises or trust the justice system sparked a movement across the United States for other communities of color to refuse to settle for the same old sham response to police-involved deaths of unarmed black men.

While I support protesting injustice, there is something more here. It is the real issue with addressing police accountability and community relations.

It is probable that less than 1 percent of incidents involving police officers’ misdeeds ever rise to the level of having them investigated by a grand jury — who debate in secret and issued findings in both the deaths of Brown and Eric Garner, who died after being placed in a police chokehold in New York.

Reforms to the grand jury process are needed but are not really going to have the meaningful impact that people seeking: true police accountability and improvements in police-community relations.

But it’s not just the police and advocacy groups at play. The media plays a huge role here.

Through distorted coverage and a lack of understanding of the processes involved in police accountability, the media has focused attention solely on the grand jury process. Whether deliberate or coincidental this actually worsens the chances to improve this relationship because we are focused on fixing something that will have little or no impact on the chief issue.

If America really ever wants to improve police-community relations, the core effort must be focused on creating a transparent and fair accountability system for police that actually holds them to their actions.

The average citizen complaint against an officer, whether it originated in a white community or a community of color, is for a low-level crime or goof that rarely involves violence. The response from the police or prosecutors is rarely — if ever — to believe the community member and thus rarely — if ever — do they sustain the allegations against the officer.

This is a consistent pattern across the country. The former director of Chicago Independent Police Review Authority, the agency that investigates most of the complaints against officers, cited as a national level a sustain rate of 8 percent. This means that 92 percent of the time the police and prosecutors are either not believing the citizen complaint or failing to find enough evidence to support the allegation.

This dismal sustain rate does not reflect a system that is aggressively holding the police accountable. It fact, it reflects the exact opposite.

You cannot have improvements in police-community relations without improvements in the accountability system. The police have demonstrated by their actions in New York, by turning their backs repeatedly on the mayor in uniform, that authorities simply are not ready to police themselves.

I cannot help but think about Jack Nicholson’s lines on the witness stand in “A Few Good Men” where he states that he “has no inclination to explain himself to a man that rises and sleeps under the very blanket of freedom I provide and then question the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you said thank you and went on your way.”

Over the last few months, police across America have proven time and again that this way of thinking is much more common than we think. With this fact ringing true it is hard to see how we are ever really going to make great strides in improving police-community relations.

This story produced by the Chicago Bureau.

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