by California Innocence Project
California Western School of Law, San Diego
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What is Police Misconduct?
Police misconduct encompasses illegal or unethical actions or the violation of individuals' constitutional rights by police officers in the conduct of their duties. Examples of police misconduct include police brutality, dishonesty, fraud, coercion, torture to force confessions, abuse of authority, and sexual assault, including the demand for sexual favors in exchange for leniency. Any of these actions can increase the likelihood of a wrongful conviction.
Police misconduct statistics gathered by the Cato Institute's National Police Misconduct Reporting Project confirm that around 1% of all police officers commit police misconduct in a given year and that the consequences of such misconduct are grim. Keith Findley from the Wisconsin Innocence Project conducted a study and found that police misconduct was a factor in as many as 50% of wrongful convictions involving DNA evidence.
At times, police misconduct is systematic. In one such case, Former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge was arrested on federal obstruction of justice and perjury charges for allegedly lying about whether he and other officers under his command participated in torture and physical abuse of suspects in police custody dating back to the 1980s. On more than one occasion, Burge participated in the torture and physical abuse of persons in police custody in order to obtain confessions and Burge was aware that detectives he supervised engaged in torture and physical abuse of people in police custody. On one specific occasion, in order to coerce a confession, the police officers placed a plastic bag over the suspect’s head until he lost consciousness. He was fired from the police department in 1993 and was later convicted in federal court for perjury connected to a civil lawsuit flied against the city.
Four of Burge’s victims of torture, who were on death row because of their coerced confessions, were granted innocence pardons by the governor after Burge’s police misconduct was brought to light. In all, there were 14 documented cases where death sentences were based on confessions involving allegations of torture.
In most police misconduct cases, the misconduct is more subtle than torture. Often times police simply push the envelope in order to obtain a witness statement. In the case of Timothy Atkins, Atkins was convicted after a witness, Denise Powell, testified that Atkins had confessed to the crime. After Atkins was incarcerated for more than two decades, the California Innocence Project presented evidence that Powell was pressured by police to testify. When reversing Atkins’ conviction, the judge held that the officers who interviewed Powell threatened her with jail if she did not provide information about the case.
Like prosecutors, police officers are tasked with making our society safe. Sometimes their zeal leads them to cross the line and use the power of their badges to make a case that otherwise would not be triable. Especially when a brutal and senseless crime occurs, the zeal to see justice done can actually lead to great injustice. Other officers are often reluctant to report police misconduct because of the loyalty they feel for their fellow officers. The proliferation of cell phone cameras have allowed citizens to record and report police misconduct. Although, in the past, most police misconduct stories were assumed to be false, now, a quick search on Youtube.com results in hundreds of videos exposing incidents of police misconduct. One example of a compilation of news and amateur video about the problems inherent in this system is BrasscheckTV's Youtube page.
Even now, however, actually making a report of police misconduct can be a challenge for the average citizen, largely because when reporting police misconduct a person has to make the report to the agency being complained about. In many cities, a citizen's review board will review complaints against police officers. Reforms and close monitoring are required to ensure that police misconduct is discovered quickly and that innocent persons are not falsely accused.