Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Police Accountability

The efforts to see justice done in the Jordan Miles case have not been limited to calls for the prosecution of the three officers. In addition, there has been a renewed push to ensure that this kind of abuse is not part of a broader culture within Pittsburgh's Police Force. The City Paper has done an excellent job of following this issue and those like it for some time now.  Council currently has a new bill to consider in this ongoing fight for police accountability and transparency. The proposal (Bill 234)  asks for data collection on Stop and Frisks and more transparent and comprehensive reporting from the Bureau.

Bill 234 is a response to several community concerns about interactions with the police. The first is that the kind of stop and frisk(a terry stop) that initiated the Jordan Miles incident is not monitoried. This means that there is currently no record kept of these interactions. This is troubling. What makes the lack of records particularly scary is that the degree of suspicion needed to justify the Miles stop was so minimal. The police allege that they saw him cutting across a lawn with a bulge in his jacket and this was the rationale for the aggressive stop. Even assuming that everything the police said was accurate, and there is some doubt about that, the idea that this kind of innocuous activity can provoke an aggressive stop, and then no record would be kept of that interaction is unbelievable. It displays a cavalier attitude toward the right against search and seizure and doesn't acknowledge what a significant potential for abuse the power of search contains. In fact, in this day of computerized data bases and the like, it is hard to see the argument that could be made for not collecting that information. Not keeping the names, descriptions or inventory of items of a suspect means that there is nothing to refer to if later information links that suspect to a crime - the police wont even have his name!

One of the greatest threats that comes with abuse of search powers is that search itself can be used as a weapon of intimidation and harassment.  Sadly there is some evidence that even very invasive searches are being used as an intimidation tactic. See this quote from a woman who was ordered to bicycle on the side walk in the City's South Side. From the CP article linked above...

He threatened to bring him in and strip-search him. He threatened to bring us in and strip-search us. And the fact he could reasonably make these threats, and that it was something he could have done, that he could say "I will physically strip search you," while looking at me with a nasty look on his face -- that’s scary. OK?

If search powers are being used punitively this is one reason that data must be kept on them. In fact, New York and Philadelphia already collect the same data that this bill demands. This would seem to challenge the threats arguments made by the FOP (jump to the 20min mark) that such data collection would be too burdensome for officers.  The FOP also assert that this would lead to fewer Terry Stops being made. This outcome wouldn't trouble me too much, especially given the flimsy pretext for searches of this type. But even that argument may not hold water. NYC makes more Terry Stops per capita than anywhere else, and they have data collection requirements. The Bill also asks that strip and body cavity searches be conducted only on the authorization of a supervisor and then must be done in a specially designated room with a minimum number of personnel present. To the best of my knowledge there is no opposition to this provision.

This isn't the end to the opposition to this bill, however. Strangely, Chief Harper has also expressed opposition to the requirement that the Bureau publish an annual report on conviction rates within the city. He claims that conviction statistics are kept by the DA's office and so he cannot produce this information. It is really hard to take this opposition seriously. Does our Chief of Police really mean to suggest that he takes himself to be able to run a major metropolitan police force without consulting or considering the City's statistics on conviction rates?! How would he be able to note a problem with levying charges against suspects, or with improper police procedure resulting in cases being thrown out, if he didn't consult the conviction statistics? The most basic measure of police effectiveness is the number of arrests made that actually result in convictions in court. If you don't have this information, you can't measure how effective officers are in actually arresting criminals.

The cynic in me thinks that Harper's opposition may be related to a practice that many allege is wide-spread within the police force: overcharging. When suspects are arrested it is the arresting officers who fill out the preliminary report that goes to the judge and the prosecution during the bail hearing. This is usually the DA's first look at the case, so there is little review of the charges before that bail hearing. If that officer produces a report that contains multiple felonies, even if there is little evidence to support a charge that grave, that allegation will form the basis of the bail hearing. The result is that bail can be denied or the costs of bail can be significantly increased until the DA has a had a chance to review the evidence and decide whether it wants to file those or reduced charges.

If this is happening, it is another case if punitive policing and this practice has effects that go beyond making bail more difficult for suspects. There are costs borne by every tax payer for keeping a suspect in jail needlessly. The result is more expensive prisons, burdens on court time and the criminal justice system causing greater disruption to lives than is necessary. When these considerations are balanced against Chief Harper's hard to swallow claims about not having that data on hand, it seems clear that the greater public good is served by disclosure. This will reveal if there is a problem with overcharging and if not will reveal how effective our police force is. Indeed, given that conviction rates are such an important measure if police effectiveness there can be little argument for failing to disclose them.

Still the most worrying thing about this fight is a Police Chief who seems like he can't recognize the importance of this data and treats it like it is none of his business.

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