Rooting out rogue police officers in Canada can be harder than jailing drug lords.
There’s the culture of ‘never-ask-never tell’. Plus the fact that it’s near impossible to find out which officers have been disciplined, demoted or thrown out. Plus the people who do look into bad cops are often other cops.
But that is starting to change. Last week, The New Yorker reported on how a group of police activists unpacked who in the NYPD is sanctioned and why. It seems Mayor Bill de Blasio is the champion of opacity when it comes to exempting police disciplinary records from public disclosure.
This past weekend a Globe and Mail editorial asked: “Why are bad police so rarely fired?” Their answer is that the Special Investigative Units called in when there’s a shooting, accusation of excessive violence, sexual assault or other police misconduct, are stacked with former police officers. Except in Ontario, it seems, where only one of its 13 lead investigators is a former police officer. Contrast this with Alberta’s Serious Incident Response Team where every single one of its 22 investigators used to be a police officer.
It’s nice to read that the established media is pushing for transparency. But police misconduct is such an age-old problem that it’s hard to view its solution with anything other than traditional thinking.
But now, in the middle of a pandemic that has so many sentences begin with “For the first time in the history of the world…”, now is the very time to apply new thinking to this intractable issue.
So, why don’t we view police misconduct not as a matter of competing power and authority, but as a matter of insurance? I wrote about this in the June 9 edition of The Plague-Ground. If cities and their police officers keep getting sued in multi-million dollar liability cases, the insurers who cover these losses will say: “We won’t pay out unless you clean up.” I quoted law professor Deborah Ramirez in an NPR piece called “Liability Insurance Could Hold ‘Reckless’ Police Officers Accountable.”
The keyword here is “Could” because her idea was a kind of ‘what if’ argument.
But it turns out that turning police misconduct over to the insurance system is already at work, with pretty astounding results. Because insurers don’t care about the morality of police reform. They care about the money.
On the weekend NBC News produced a lengthy report that began with this story:
“The city of Niota, Tennessee, population 700, has a police department with just three officers. So when two of them wound up in court in 2011 accused of beating up a local motorist, Niota had a huge problem. The motorist sued for $35 million, more than 75 times the city budget.”
“Civil courts are a common path for police misconduct victims, costing major cities hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade. Many early Black Lives Matter headlines are linked to monetary settlements: Michael Brown, $1.5 million; Freddie Gray, $6.4 million; Eric Garner, $5.9 million; Tamir Rice, $6 million.”
“But a town the size of Niota can’t raise that kind of money. Like most smaller cities, it purchases liability insurance, via either a commercial insurer or a nonprofit “risk pool” with other nearby governments. The insurers help cities weather the cost of legal claims from playground injuries to wrongful convictions to police abuse.”
I urge you to take 20 minutes and read the entire piece, which discusses how insurers have become far better regulators of police misconduct than review panels and investigative journalists – in cities large and small.
Think of it this way. If you drink and drive, or if you just can’t stop speeding and you drive a beat-up old car because you can’t afford a better one, any increase in your premiums could end your days in the driver’s seat. But what if you drive a Rolls Royce? One day, you’ll get a letter from your insurer saying: “We’re not covering you any more.” And when you go to get coverage with another insurer, they too will refuse you because all the insurers share the same database. And driving without insurance, whether you’re rich or poor, can be jail-worthy.
Yes, these examples come out of America and a few readers wrote to tell me (pat, pat) that things may work that way in the US, but not in Canada.
But let’s at least get this kind of thinking on the agenda the next time someone in power calls for new ideas on how to emasculate bad cops.
Especially ideas that come from somewhere else.