When sentencing someone who has done wrong, judges are very fond of saying words like, “I have to sentence you to this long sentence to hold you accountable for what you have done.”
Apparently judges think it is important to hold someone accountable for their misdeeds. Similarly, parents teach their children that that the child is being punished as a way for them to learn to not do something again. In other words, a parent holds even a child accountable for when they do something wrong.
So why do we hesitate to treat the police differently than we treat a child?
We know that taxpayers pay hundreds of millions of dollars each year in the form of settlements for police brutality and other misconduct. The nation’s three biggest cities account for over 80 percent of those costs. But the data on payouts to victims and their families is so spotty and inconsistent—some cities don’t even agree on what constitutes “misconduct”—we can’t tell whether the payments change the bad behavior that prompts excessive force or wrongful death cases in the first place. “Police misconduct has cost Milwaukee taxpayers at least $17.5 million in legal settlements since 2015, forcing the city to borrow money to make the payouts amid an ever-tightening budget. That amount jumps to at least $21.4 million when interest paid on the borrowing and fees paid to outside attorneys are factored in.” Kevin Crowe and Ashley Luthern, “The cost of police misconduct in Milwaukee: $21 million – and growing” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (2017), https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/investigations/2017/10/25/cost-police-misconduct-milwaukee-21-million-and-growing/792428001/. By 2020, that amount erupted to $40 million. Police Misconduct Cases Costly For Milwaukee (Seehafer News 2020), https://www.seehafernews.com/2020/11/11/police-misconduct-cases-costly-for-milwaukee/.
Incidentally, when many cities, including Milwaukee, exceed their budgets for settlements and judgments related to police misconduct, they utilize taxpayer-funded bonds with high interest rates to cover the costs of lawsuits. This creates an avenue for banks and investors to profit from police brutality. Edgar Mendez, Banks earn millions from bonds issued to settle MPD brutality cases, new report finds (Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service June 19, 2018), https://milwaukeenns.org/2018/06/19/banks-earn-millions-from-bonds-issued-to-settle-mpd-brutality-cases-new-report-finds/.
“As the country has witnessed episode after episode of police abuse, holding police officers accountable for misconduct has become an urgent issue. But despite increased attention, it’s still rare for police officers to face criminal prosecution. That leaves civil lawsuits as victims’ primary route for seeking legal redress and financial compensation when a police encounter goes wrong. The resulting settlements can be expensive for the city, which is generally on the hook for the payouts (meaning ultimately, most are subsidized by taxpayers), and those costs can encourage cities to make broader changes.” AMELIA THOMSON-DEVAUX, LAURA BRONNER and DAMINI SHARMA, “Police Misconduct Costs Cities Millions Every Year. But That’s Where The Accountability Ends.(The Marshall Project 2021), https://www.themarshallproject.org/2021/02/22/police-misconduct-costs-cities-millions-every-year-but-that-s-where-the-accountability-ends.
We should not accept the false choice of either having a police force or not having a police force. The reality of today’s society is that a police force is needed. But there are several commonsense reforms that state and local leaders should pursue to reduce police brutality while protecting the thousands of honest law enforcement officials who risk their lives every day for their fellow citizens. “STATE SOLUTIONS THAT ADDRESS POLICE REFORM AND ACCOUNTABILITY,” State Policy Network (2020), https://spn.org/blog/state-solutions-that-address-police-reform-and-accountability/?gclid=Cj0KCQiA-OeBBhDiARIsADyBcE554-bsO0PfQ4RzSLp2Kjiyqst1_iFR2e9zl3FQDrh3k7hQY31y2R0aAr7uEALw_wcB.
It is time to hold the police accountable for their mistakes, and not just from the taxpayer’s pocketbook. We need to quit accepting the fear-mongering that holding police accountable will increase crime. Police officers are the public officials society has authorized, even obliged, to use force. Ensuring that police officers use that warrant equitably, legally, and economically on behalf of citizens is as basic as discipling your child to make sure the child learns a lesson.