On Thursday, the Washington Examiner reported that for 2011, most of the police misconduct complaints had gone unaddressed. In fact, according to the article, the Office of Police Complaints (OPC) had not reached a judgement on any complaint since April of last year; four total. In 2010, the government attempted to outsource the duties of examining the complaints deemed legitimate, but they received no bids on the contract. Since then, they have kept it in-house for the understaffed, underfunded OPC to deal with. That same year, according to their annual report, they received 532 complaints, but they were only able to investigate 214 of them. Of those, they reached a decision on a mere 14; 319 complaints were left open going into 2011.
The OPC doesn’t appear to be able handle the responsibility with which they are tasked. This creates a conundrum, spoken to directly by Johnny Barnes, director of the National Capitol Area ACLU,
“The police cannot and will not police themselves,” Barnes said. “If that board isn’t functioning and cannot function, then there is likely no way to seek and find justice when citizens have complaints.”
To what recourse do citizens have when they are abused by the police and the mechanism in place to deal with such abuse is inefficient. This situation, where the police have the state-sponsored authority to use force against citizens, even deadly force, but yet have no accountability to those citizens, is a very dangerous one indeed.
For those who have the resources to do so, suing the police department may be the only conventional means available as an alternative. Take for example the case of Dwight Harris. Mr. Harris is a middle aged homeless man who is confined to a wheelchair. On June of 2011, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) police, otherwise known as the Transit Police, stopped him for allegedly having an open container of alcohol. This police stop ended when they picked Mr. Harris up out of his chair and threw him forcefully to the ground. This incident received a lot of attention because a bystander recorded it with their cellphone and uploaded the footage to youtube. One of the men in the video, Lawrence Miller, who can be seen and heard protesting the treatment of Harris was eventually arrested and charged. The charges on both Mr. Harris and Mr. Miller were dropped.
The ACLU, on behalf of Mr. Miller, filed a suit against the Transit Police on January 17, 2012. According to the court filing, “Concerned about the officers’ violence towards Mr. Harris, Mr. Miller spoke up on his friend’s behalf. In response to his reasonable questions, voiced by other bystanders as well, Officer Price threatened to arrest him too. Mr. Miller decided to leave and began walking
away, but Officer Fred Price followed and arrested him.” Officer Fred Price, not the police department, is being sued as an individual for violation of the 1st and 4th Amendments, assault and battery, and false arrest.
Not everyone will be fortunate enough to have the support of the ACLU, similarly not everyone will have the resources to go after the police themselves. Given those circumstances, citizens (and non-citizens) beware!