By Seth Richardson
After three months on the job, Denver Manager of Public Safety Dan Perea has resigned his position in the face of growing criticism about his handling of police discipline. Perea rightfully acknowledged to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper that it would be difficult to rebuild trust with the community after the public outcry, particularly in the minority community, over his light punishment of officers Devin Sparks and Randy Murr, who brutally and without cause beat Michael DeHerrera and then lied about it in their reports, and his equally off-hand and dismissive discipline of police officer Eric Sellers, who assaulted a citizen who criticized him. If the citizen had done to Sellers what Sellers did to him, the citizen would have been facing charges of felony assault on a police officer. Sellers should be facing felony criminal assault charges right now, as should Sparks and Murr.
The problem highlighted by this debacle is that of the “brotherhood” of police officers and the tendency of law enforcement officers, including former law enforcement officers now in supervisory positions, to cover up or minimize the misconduct of fellow officers.
In this case, it appears that Perea, a former police officer and Secret Service agent, stood behind the “thin blue line” and went far beyond giving the benefit of the doubt to the officers involved and descended into ignoring obvious and egregious criminal violations of the civil rights of citizens in favor of protecting the career goals of abusive police officers and kowtowing to the police union.
In a Denver Post article on Tuesday, August 24, 2010, David Bruno, a lawyer for the Denver Police Protective Association objected to the re-opening of both cases. “My fear,” said Bruno, “is that either a citizen or an officer will now be hurt if an officer hesitates in the slightest degree to do what he believes is appropriate in the circumstances without the cloud of fear that behind him is the monitor dictating what the monitor, as an armchair quarterback, believes 20 months later is appropriate conduct.”
It’s unsurprising that a mouthpiece for the police union would decry oversight and review of police misconduct, but the covert sentiment, which is that the police can do no wrong and should be immune from critical scrutiny and review, much less discipline, is so beyond the pale of acceptability that it boggles the mind.
Of course the police should be concerned about the potential that their actions will be scrutinized and disciplined after the fact. They should be sweating bullets that their career will be conclusively and completely over if they breach the boundaries of lawful, appropriate conduct, particularly in the use of physical force, to the slightest degree, ever. The fear of discipline is specifically intended to constrain the conduct of police officers to the maximum possible degree consistent with their actual, objective need to use physical force as a last resort.
The problem we face today with most large metropolitan police departments is the immunity from the consequences of misconduct and abusive use of force fostered and encouraged by police unions and their mouthpieces, and fostered by the use of disciplinary review boards comprised of “fellow officers,” rather than the citizens of the community.
The Denver Police Department is notorious for it’s frequent unconstrained brutality, particularly among minority populations, and it’s long past time to raise the bar for policing in Denver, and everywhere else, by weeding out every officer who crosses the line between legitimate and authorized use of reasonable and appropriate force and deliberate abuse of authority and misuse of force to administer street justice.
When those in charge of reviewing allegations of police misconduct are themselves police officers, it cannot be said that they can objectively view the events in the context of civil and criminal law. This is because the standards by which police officers judge their own conduct frequently varies widely from that conduct that is acceptable and appropriate to their employers, the People.
Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the London Metropolitan Police, the model for modern law enforcement today, espoused nine principles of modern law enforcement in 1829, to which most police departments still subscribe:
Principles numbers six and seven are pertinent here. The use of physical force is to be a last resort, not the first, and police must understand at all times that they are not the parents, supervisors, managers or rulers of the citizens they serve, they are their guardians and servants, and their authority to act flows directly from the very people they come into contact with, and from nowhere else. As public servants, they owe the People respect and proper behavior, but too many police officers believe that they have a mandate to do whatever they think they should, or can do to manage the citizenry. But that’s not what we authorize them to do. Unless we are committing crimes, the police should leave us alone entirely, and keep their opinions about our public behavior to themselves, along with their hands. They must also accept without comment or complaint any degree of surveillance, videotaping or other documentation of their activities that any of their employers choose to engage in, because their actions are indisputably matters of public interest and record.
Because we, the People, are the masters of the police, we must refuse to tolerate any police officer who forgets, even for a moment, his duty of obedience to the law or his duty of respect for the rights of citizens. There is no room for error here, and like military discipline, police discipline must be harsh and uncompromising and those who are unfit for such service must be removed, for the protection of society.
What this means is that under no circumstances should current or former law enforcement personnel be in charge of reviewing and issuing discipline to police officers. The duty of the police is to the public, and objective review of allegations of police misconduct should be performed by ordinary citizens, because it is their liberty and their rights that are at risk.
Service as a law enforcement officer is a privilege, not a right, in spite of what the police unions might believe, and police must be subject to the standards of the community, not their own standards, particularly when misconduct occurs. And when a police officer deliberately violates the civil rights of a citizen, as happened in the two cases illustrated, those officers must be drummed out of the profession permanently and irrevocably, for they have demonstrated that they are not worthy of our trust or the authority we grant them.
Only a fully-independent citizen review commission empaneled to review allegations of police misconduct and dispense discipline, including terminating officers at will, will suffice to adequately protect the average citizen against police abuse. Such decisions should be sovereign to the People and immune to being overturned by either the courts or the city administration because it is the citizenry who grant authority and trust to their public servants, and it is the citizenry who must be permitted to fire them at will when they no longer trust them to serve the public faithfully and properly.
© 2010 Altnews