Police have a lot of power. What they don't have is a lot of accountability. That needs to change.
Just yesterday, police in San Fransisco arrested a public defender for doing her job while representing a client. Here's a link to the video.
Jami Tillotson, a veteran public defender, was representing her client at court. The law is crystal clear, and has been for a long time, that once a person has a lawyer, the police cannot go around that lawyer to talk to the person. Yet outside court, the police went up to Tillotson's client. Tillotson told them to back off. The cops arrested her.
This is just the latest in a long string of police abuses, from the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner, a 12-year-old kid in Cleveland, and countless less high profile abuses. If you want to spend an afternoon angry at the state of the world, search "Police Brutality" on YouTube.
Cops even have the temerity to ask the people who made a smartphone app to disable one of its functions because it shows motorists where cops are. The police would rather be donut-eating ninjas operating in stealth rather than let technology help people know where a speed trap is.
Much of this is completely foreseeable. Take a group made up of predominantly young men, give them military equipment to go after civilians, train them to use SWAT team tactics, and give them a massive amount of power. It's dangerous to rely on The Onion as a source of news, but the fake paper got it right with "Insecure, Frustrated Bully With Something to Prove Considering a Career in Law Enforcement."
When you look at the arrest of Tillotson, and the other abuses the country has seen lately, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that cops think they're above the law.
What's worse, when you look at what happens to cops who abuse their authority, it's hard to say that's not right.
There are three main ways cop face consequences if they step out of line.
First, the can be prosecuted for a crime. This is hard, and only happens to a rare number of cases. As we saw in Ferguson, local prosecutors have a hard time going against the cops they work with every day. The federal Department of Justice can step in, but there are a limited number of cases they can do.
Criminal prosecution, in any event, is not the right option to meaningfully curb police abuses. It'll weed out the worst of the worst, but it won't stop the garden variety abuses of authority that corrode public confidence in the police.
Second, public attention can have some effect. Again, this isn't a widespread fix, and only a small number of cases will go viral and capture the public's attention.
Third, and finally, people can sue bad cops.
There's a myth that it's easy to sue the police. It's just not. That's why many law firms just won't take a police misconduct case, including mine. The reason - aside from often having to prove that a cop lied - is that police get to hide behind a doctrine called "qualified immunity." What that basically means is that if there's any viable argument at all that what the cop did was legal, the cop can't be held responsible.
This is what should change. Lawsuits against cops should be easier; the doctrine of qualified immunity should be eliminated. If a cop violates someone's civil rights, a jury should be able to find them liable.
Police should be responsible for what they do, just like everyone else. Police brutality is a serious wrong. Few lawyers will work to correct it with the law as it is now. But making it easier to sue and get a judgment from police would let them know that if they step out of line - if they arrest a lawyer in public for doing her job, or they shoot another unarmed kid in a park - there will be consequences.
The people who enforce the law shouldn't be above it.