The media has covered allegations of police violence with much fervor as of late. People from all sides of the political spectrum have made police violence into a partisan issue. Fox News has consistently supported the police and attacked victims.
More liberal news outlets (i.e. The Daily Show and MSNBC) have focused on the resulting protests that have sprung up around the country and tried to paint a picture of a modern police force resembling something out of Orwell’s 1984 or 1960’s Alabama.
Instead of asking important questions and moving the national dialogue forward, both sides have tried to use the recent incidents involving police for their own political gain. As a nation, we need to discuss what we want from our police and the US Constitution is the necessary starting point. Although police power has been technically left to the states, the Bill of Rights still stands as the most important limit on police power. Specifically the Fourth amendment, which begs the question…
With recent Supreme Court decisions, how can the Fourth Amendment function in modern America? The Supreme Court has authored many famous opinions on the limits of the Fourth amendment. The reason for this is because the Fourth amendment uses ambiguous and dated language.
It guarantees, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures…” That clause is the only real constitutional limit on the power of the police to use physical force. Without going into a survey on 20th century Supreme Court case law, basically the Court has carved out large enough exceptions to the Fourth amendment that police can almost always justify their use of force, provided they can articulate some kind of “reasonable suspicion” that their suspect had committed a crime.
They can also justify their use of force by pointing to public safety. For example, in McKinney Texas, officer Casebolt probably would have escaped any kind of criminal or civil penalty, because he could have pointed to public safety to justify his use of force. I can almost guarantee that his attorneys will argue that his use of force was required to prevent further violence. He had to control the situation.
Protecting the public is a noble goal and requires the police to be free to use some level of force. Unfortunately, police organizations from around the country have been very successful in creating a culture of fear among their officers and the public. Police have responded by treating routine traffic stops and peaceful protests with a level of force we haven’t seen in quite some time. Questioning the actions of police has unfortunately become taboo and police unions are often too strong for departments to take any substantive remedial action. So what can we do?
Well, we need our federal courts including the Supreme Court to strengthen the Fourth amendment and provide more clarity about what level of force can be justified by the officer. On a more local level, we need to elect politicians who are serious about confronting this issue head on. Finally, we need to all make our voices heard on the subject of police violence. Do not let the paid talking heads dominate the national discussion with hyper-politicized points of view. Despite what people like Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow would like us to think, most Americans share a lot of common ground on this issue. Very few people believe that police violence is a good thing. And most reasonable people understand that police have a very hard job and need the freedom to use some level of force on a day to day basis. I encourage everyone reading this to start paying attention to these kinds of news stories and actually take the time to think and form your own opinions. Here’s to a better tomorrow for all of us.
Cheers, Paul Benson Attorney at Law