I don't trust the police. I don't think you should either, based on both anecdotal experience and reams of data. The police are a loaded gun, and although they might have preferences for who they're going to shoot, their overriding preference is that they shoot someone
. Even if you're the one who called for help (and it can sometimes be useful to have a loaded gun), the shot person could be you.
Most lawyers would similarly tell you never to talk to police without a lawyer present, even if you're not being accused of anything. As it happens I trust lawyers more than I do police. And I don't trust lawyers. The American judicial system is in need of significant reform. When 90% of cases settle instead of going to trial, when trials are expensive and temporally far-removed from the events under examination, and when the language and processes of the law are increasingly esoteric and impossible for a common citizen to understand, we are clearly in a system that is in violation of about half the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution, and it's only the same unconstitutional parsing of the law that allows the system to define itself otherwise.
Better people than I am are working to fix our judicial processes, many of them from within the system. I am optimistic they will eventually prevail; human beings care too much about justice for it to be otherwise. It's part of our animal monkey-screaming-in-a-cage
nature. And the people who want to be judges care about this stuff even more than the general population; it's a profession that self-selects for moral fiber, even though some individuals get myopic after too much time in the system (which, for the reasons stated, does a poor job of reflecting reality).
But to really reform the justice system, you have to start with the police. Technically, police are part of the executive branch and the courts are in the judicial branch, but do you really believe they act to check and balance each other? Let's be straight: It's one branch. The pay stubs might come from different accounts, but it's a rare judge who's going to take the word of a private citizen over the word of a cop. Juries too - juries are presented with officer pomp and circumstance, instructed by the judge and prosecutor to respect rather than doubt the officer. (Have you ever felt when listening to officer testimony that the court wanted you to presume the innocence of the accused?)
There's compulsion, too: I'm intimidated by cops. Are you? They certainly do their best to look scary. They certainly can make your life hell if you go against them, pretty much with impunity. Are you going to doubt the cop who says that guy was tresspassing and find the guy innocent, or are you going to figure the cop will be annoyed with you if you find not guilty and might hassle you later? It's just a small fine. Maybe he was tresspassing. I'm not sure he wasn't. Why are you going to trust the person who got arrested? He got arrested
This is the opposite of reasonable doubt. For this reason alone, we can't reform the justice system without police reform.
It's not the only reason. It almost goes without saying that you don't enter the criminal justice system without police funneling you there. How and who they do and don't funnel determines, more than anything, who is a criminal, often for behavior that looks downright identical to behavior which is not considered criminal.
Example: You walked across my lawn without asking my permission (criminal tresspassing). You were carrying a walking stick (weapon). A receipt fell out of your pocket (evidence; littering). You messed up the growth pattern of my grass (more evidence; vandalism). You jumped off the low wall at the end of the garden, which the next-door toddler witnessed and may try to repeat (more evidence; child endangerment). My neighbor was worried (disturbing the peace).
If this scenario sounds absurd to you, you are probably white. Not all white people find it absurd. I for instance am white.
If this arrest scenario happens to you, the police will say they are following the letter of the law and trying to enforce it uniformly. Ha ha ha. The courts will repeat this when you bring up how the police acted, and tell you it's in the interest of fairness and caution. Ha ha ha.
This assumes you entered the justice system at all, rather than dying unarmed in an officer-involved shooting. You will be glad to know the officer will not be convicted of murder or even manslaughter. At least someone
is getting a reasonable doubt, amIright?
Ciro and I, being science fiction writers, have been kicking around ideas about what an ideal police force would look like, and how we might get there. In theory, the police exist to protect people from predation by the cruel or exploitative, which sometimes includes protecting cruel and exploitative people from predation by other cruel and exploitative people, including cruel and exploitative people who might work their way into the police force.
Some possibilities, varying levels of plausible, no particular order:
1. Drastically redefine how we imagine the role of police officer, and shift our recruiting efforts accordingly. Most police calls are not to stop heavily armed supervillains dangling children off rooftops. Most police calls are to take a report because somebody's car got keyed, or to ask partygoers to keep it down. You know it; I know it. The thin blue line? Is ballpoint ink. Most of the time, we need the kinds of people who are dorm mothers. The police recruiting ads, on the other hand, are full of guns and muscles. These are not attracting peace-loving people.
2. Obliterate SWAT teams at the local level; call in the national guard in SWAT-type, which yes means involving the governor. Higher standard. This is what we always did until the 80s. Local police, even in big cities, do not need paramilitary units. Relatedly, it's downright jarring to see someone standing by a flag as an honor guard, holding an AK-47 for no particular reason. I just don't think people are that determined to get the flag. Appropriate levels of armament, please.
3. In much the way the fire department has retrained to provide emergency medical services, and spends as much or more time working in the healthcare system than fighting fires, the police force needs to cross-skill to offer social and psychiatric services, currently something of a patchwork of underfunded agencies. Considering how often criminal problems overlap with social services and/or psychiatric problems already (both with troubled homelifes spilling over into criminal behavior and with police asking social services to conduct wellness checks), this seems like a no-brainer.
4. Issue google glass to all police while on duty. Require them to provide a copy of the relevant section to anyone they arrest. Pull random sections monthly for departmental review.
5. More radically, stop letting the police force self-select. Use a draft police force at the beat cop level, the same way we serve jury duty, although for longer (paid) terms of service. The supervisors remain professional specialists (detectives, social workers, and the armed guys you have to call in and feel sheepish about calling in).
None of these are perfect solutions, and I'm still thinking. But we can do better. I know we can.