It’s been a bad couple of years for the police in my part of the state. Late in 1992, a jury awarded Fred Sanders $1.5 million dollars after finding that officers had beaten him after his arrest and then conspired to cover it up. This January, our city settled a suit brought by a motorcycle club, following a raid based on inaccurate…
It’s been a bad couple of years for the police in my part of the state. Late in 1992, a jury awarded Fred Sanders $1.5 million dollars after finding that officers had beaten him after his arrest and then conspired to cover it up. This January, our city settled a suit brought by a motorcycle club, following a raid based on inaccurate information and characterized by antics reminiscent of the Keystone Kops. Last month, a state trooper arrested an Indianapolis policeman doing 103 miles per hour; according to the trooper, the policeman was "rescued" by other IPD officers looking to protect their own. Other than a speeding ticket, he was not charged with any offense. (The Indiana Civil Liberties Union has asked for a special prosecutor.) And just last week, an all-white jury in Hancock County awarded $3.5 million dollars to the mother of black teenager Michael Taylor, whose death some eight years ago had been explained away as a suicide. Taylor had been in the back seat of a police car with his hands handcuffed behind him when he was shot.
Most police officers are good people, doing a difficult job under difficult circumstances. Unfortunately, the good officers are the ones who suffer when the public loses confidence in law enforcement. The task before us is to demand structural changes that will reign in the few bad apples so that they no longer reflect adversely on the vast majority of conscientious, hard-working officers.
Currently, when a policeman is accused of wrongdoing, the county prosecutor investigates the facts and-if appropriate–charges the officer with a crime. This puts the prosecutor in an unenviable position: he or she depends upon the goodwill and support of local police. If there is not a good working relationship between the prosecutor and the police, law enforcement overall suffers. Prosecutors who are too forceful in charging errant police officers soon find their effectiveness diminished. Good prosecutors thus find themselves caught between the proverbial "rock and hard place."
If the Indiana General Assembly were to pass a law requiring that all charges against police be pursued by a prosecutor from another county, it would immediately do two things: relieve the prosecutor who works with those officers of an inherent conflict of interest; and restore public confidence in the integrity of the system.
When the police involved in Michael Taylor’s death were exonerated without submission of evidence to a grand jury or other independent tribunal, it gave rise to anger and suspicion. For years, activists have accused Stephen Goldsmith, then prosecutor, of a deliberate cover-up. Such accusations gain credence and breed distrust when there is no demonstrably independent mechanism in place to investigate and disprove them. Had the Taylor shooting been investigated by a prosecutor with no political or professional ties to the Indianapolis Department of Public Safety, citizens would have been more willing to accept that person’s conclusions.
Insisting that accusations against police be pursued by an independent prosecutor as a matter of course will not solve all of the problems that arise between law enforcement personnel and the citizens they serve. But it would be a good first step.