January 25, 2022 | Reading Time: 6 minutes
Are law enforcement officers above the law? Yes. By how much? A new report tells us
Another and profitable layer of protection against police accountability.
The truth about being a police officer in America is that you can do pretty much whatever, safe in the knowledge that almost everything is on your side: the law, the courts, elected officials and the public.
But to ensure that such impunity is sealed tight, there’s now another layer of protection. It was reported last month by the Times. Over 10 years, a cottage industry has sprung up that exonerates cops in civil suits involving death in custody. The Times called it “a self-reinforcing ecosystem of people who advise, train and defend officers.”
An overwhelming majority of white people in this country trust the police. As long as cops have that trust, they can do whatever they want. The former president is the only one above the law.
Turns out the same people keep showing up over and over in case after case. They show up in court to say stun guns can’t kill. They show up in court to say neck holds and other restraints can’t kill. They show up to say something else killed victims, like drugs in their systems or pre-existing health conditions or something called “excited delirium.”
And it turns out these same people have been entwined with law enforcement for a decade. Some are paid by Axon, maker of stun guns. Some work for firms that train cops on how to minimize legal liability. The Times report unearthed corruption the scale of which lets police act with impunity while families of the dead lose hope of seeing justice.
They’re making bank, too.
According to the Times: These “dozen or so individuals and companies have collected millions of dollars over the past decade, much of it in fees that are largely underwritten by taxpayers, who cover the costs of police training and policies and the legal bills of accused officers.”
None of this is surprising to Dr. Daniel K. Pryce, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at OId Dominion University. He said a major problem is the basic trust given to these “expert witnesses” by juries. They defer to their “authority.” The result is unequal justice.
The worst part, though, is the biggest impediment to police reform. An overwhelming majority of white people in this country trust the police. As long as cops have that trust, they can do whatever they want.
The former president is not the only one above the law.
“Any case before the courts with glaring conflicts of interest would leave the public divided as to what the real truth is regarding the evidence presented for exoneration or conviction.”
After reading the Times report, what’s your big take away?
I think such partnerships can be problematic, especially if the “expert” witness has a financial incentive to provide certain recommendations to the courts. Financial incentives can be blinding, especially for unscrupulous “expert” witnesses.
Sadly, this scenario is common in all fields, not just in criminal justice. This explains why two so-called experts could take the stand in a murder case and come up with two differing conclusions, although they are both looking at the same evidence.
By “problematic,” you mean conflicts of interest that fog the public’s understanding of police behavior for the purpose of preventing accountability?
My use of the term “problematic” is tied to glaring conflicts of interest, which make it hard for the public to trust the testimony of the “expert” witness.
Is it fair to say the corruption is deeper than “a few bad apples”?
I would not speculate on how entrenched the problem has become. However, any case before the courts with glaring conflicts of interest would leave the public divided as to what the real truth is regarding the evidence presented for exoneration or conviction.
We must understand that members of the public rarely possess the requisite tools to do their own investigations. This is why “expert” witness testimonies can be so powerful, no matter how tainted they may be.
“Conflicts of interest are common in all fields, not just in criminal justice. This explains why two so-called experts could take the stand in a murder case and come up with two differing conclusions, although they are both looking at the same evidence.”
For example, a witness with ties to a body-worn-camera manufacturer would be expected to provide evidence to support the manufacturer. While a few in society may understand if the evidence provided is erroneous, a large majority would not, because we are wont to trust so-called experts as a society.
So even if an expert witness has ties to the Taser maker and is testifying in a case involving death by Taser, the public — including a jury — would trust that expert on account of his being an expert.
If the “expert” is good at presenting information that is convincing, then the answer is yes. Members of the jury typically do not have expertise related to the subject matter, so they are likely to make their decision based on the plurality of evidence provided by either the prosecution or the defense.
This is one of the biggest problems with the jury system in the United States.
There is a reason we call them a “jury of one’s peers.” This system of legal decision-making is itself problematic, because defense attorneys tend to fight to weed out certain potential jurors they think may be antagonistic to their cause.
Forgive my ignorance, but don’t judges have an interest in revealing conflicts of interest and explaining what they mean to juries?
I think in jury trials, judges do step in occasionally if they notice a glaring problem that needs to be addressed. But, ultimately, good lawyers are able to shift the jury pool in their clients’ favor.
No one should be surprised to know that this is why rich people tend to get shorter sentences than poor people for the same offense committed. On paper, the criminal justice system is supposed to be fair, but one cannot compare the work of a highly paid private attorney to that of a government-appointed defense attorney. Not even close.
It is the same reason that a highly paid “expert” witness can shift the arm of justice in their client’s favor. Representation matters, and good representation costs money.
Can you explain what “excited delirium” is and why it so often appears as an explanation for someone dying in police custody?
This is a convenient term that certain “experts” employ to aid in exonerating their clients: police officers.
The plurality of the evidence, which has come from medical examiners, shows that there is no identifiable anatomic reason for such deaths. As a result, we could attribute such causes of death to a disruption of the heart’s rhythm from officers’ use of electrical devices meant to subdue an agitated client, or, for officers facing an uphill legal battle, the convenient explanation of excited delirium.
If sudden agitation led to sudden death, everyone who has been very angry should have died.
I may be wrong in my assessment, but why is it that “expert” witnesses are always quick to blame the presence of stimulants in a suspect’s system as the cause of death, and not the excessive force used to subdue the suspect?
The fact that experts cannot agree on this link between excited delirium and sudden death says a lot about the former’s continual use as exculpatory evidence.
“On paper, the criminal justice system is supposed to be fair, but one cannot compare the work of a highly paid private attorney to that of a government-appointment defense attorney. Not even close.”
There’s a clear pattern of citing ailments like heart disease as cause of death after, say, police beat someone up. This seems at the very least blaming the dead for being dead. Why is this acceptable?
It is clear that a segment of the population always supports the police, irrespective of the evidence presented when someone dies at the hands of the police. We live in a divided nation, and things seem to be getting worse.
Some people, especially some white people, will trust police more than they trust the evidence of their eyes. To what extent is this blindness an impediment to police reform?
Research clearly shows that, compared to minorities, whites are more likely to support the police and push back against police reform. Research by Tom Tyler and colleagues is a good starting point.
(Professor Pryce then cited a study he co-authored last year. It was about community attitudes toward police after a white officer murdered George Floyd. Here’s a clip from the article’s Abstract: “We find that, compared to whites and other racial groups, blacks were more likely to report both personal and vicarious experiences and were less trusting of and satisfied with police. In addition, blacks were less likely than whites and other racial groups to support the police’s handling of peaceful protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death.)
What can we do about this “self-reinforcing ecosystem,” as the Times put it, that leads to victims being damned if they did and damned if they didn’t? What legal reforms?
Legal reforms are difficult because of citizens’ vested interests and ideological leanings. In a multiracial society such as ours, compromise is a great way to get things done. Sadly, too many people refuse to listen to the other side, hence our perennial race problems in this country.
Still, violence is not a solution to any of our problems. Civilized people should be able to have a dialogue about what is ailing their communities, and that is what I recommend for us as a nation.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.