Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.
A federal review has found that officers routinely used unnecessary force against citizens.
Civil libertarians believe that police officers ought to be subject to intense oversight, but are often overruled by police chiefs, elected officials, and police unions, as well as members of the public who assume officers won't misbehave too badly.
Here are the deadly results in one American city.
After a 16-month investigation of the Albuquerque Police Department, the federal government reports that its officers routinely violated the Constitutional rights of residents, unjustly beating them, shocking them with tasers, and even shooting them dead. 21 fatal shootings were reviewed. "Officers were not justified under federal law in using deadly force in the majority of those incidents," the report states. "Albuquerque police officers shot and killed civilians who did not pose an imminent threat of serious bodily harm or death to the officers or others."
Let me underline that finding.
Albuquerque police needlessly extinguished someone's life on at least 11 occasions. One unarmed man was shot through the chest as he lay motionless on his back. "No police officer has been prosecuted for unlawful killing," The Economist notes, "yet the city has had to pay out $24m in legal settlements to victims’ relatives."
All this happened between 2009 and 2012.
"Officers used deadly force against people who posed a minimal threat, including individuals who posed a threat only to themselves or who were unarmed," the report states. "Officers also used deadly force in situations where the conduct of the officers heightened the danger and contributed to the need to use force."
The police department abused its power in non-lethal situations too.
"Albuquerque police officers often use unreasonable physical force without regard for the subject's safety or the level of threat encountered," the report concluded after reviewing more than 200 use of force incidents. "For example, officers fired Tasers numerous times at a man who had poured gasoline on himself. The Taser discharges set the man on fire, requiring another officer to extinguish the flames."
Victims were often mentally ill people. Regardless of the victim, supervisors looked the other way:
The use of excessive force by APD officers is not isolated or sporadic. The pattern or practice of excessive force stems from systemic deficiencies in oversight, training, and policy. Chief among these deficiencies is the department's failure to implement an objective and rigorous internal accountability system.
Force incidents are not properly investigated, documented, or addressed with corrective measures. We found only a few instances in the incidents we reviewed where supervisors scrutinized officers' use of force and sought additional investigation. In nearly all cases, supervisors endorsed officers' version of events, even when officers' accounts were incomplete, were inconsistent with other evidence, or were based on canned or repetitive language.
Even misconduct investigations didn't do much good. Superiors just whitewashed misconduct:
In particular, we reviewed 200 incidents through a sampling of use of force reports and internal affairs investigations for a period spanning January 2009 through April 2013... APD identified less than 1% of these reports as unreasonable uses of force. In contrast, we concluded that approximately a third of the same incidents involved officer conduct that was unreasonable. The disparity between our conclusions is striking and strongly suggests a pervasive and deliberate leniency in supervisory oversight and accountability.
One of the most troubling things about the behavior documented in the report are how many officers were complicit in it. That is brought home most powerfully by an incident involving a drunk, 60-year-old man who got into an argument with a friend, who called the police, saying he had a pellet gun and a knife.
Soon, 47 officers had arrived at the scene.
Here's how things unfolded:
After some delay, Albert complied with officers' orders to drop a knife that he was holding while standing at the doorway and walked outside unarmed. After additional delay, he stopped and began to turn. At that point, an officer was ordered to "bag him." An officer fired five successive rounds ofbeanbags at Albert with a shot gun. Another officer deployed a flash-bang grenade. Another officer shot him with a canister of four wooden batons, two of which penetrated his skin. Another officer deployed a police canine that bit Albert in the arm, tearing his flesh as the canine tried to pull him down.
Albert grabbed onto a nearby fence. Two officers fired Tasers at Albert; one of them fired six five-second cycles of electricity into him. Albert finally collapsed, and officers carried him away unconscious, leaving behind a trail of blood and urine. In an April 2012 order entering judgment as a matter of law in Albert's favor, District Judge Bruce Black found that "no reasonable person could believe that an inhibited, slow-moving, 60-year-old individual, who made no physical or verbal threats, and wielded no weapons, could constitute a threat to the safety.
The farther one gets in the report, the more one wonders if some of the officers took a sadistic pleasure in needlessly shooting electric currents into the bodies of strangers.
In April 2010, officers responded to a disturbing-the-peace call. Officers arrived on the scene of a party and decided to break it up. One oft he officers approached Ivan, who was lying on a couch, apparently passed out. The officer tried several times to awaken Ivan, including using a "sternum rub," which is a strike to the chest that causes a person to awaken and reflexively jerk their limbs. Ivan woke up, struck the officer on the leg, and lay back down. The officer then attempted to handcuff Ivan, despite the fact that Ivan was clearly intoxicated and unable to respond to the officer's commands. As Ivan pulled away from the officer while still prone on the coach, the officer fired his Taser at Ivan and then used it in drive-stun mode three times before he finally arrested the man.
There is a lot more madness in the report. And it is important reading, for it illustrates how thoroughly police officers can be corrupted by the power given them, absent proper oversight, sound policies, and a reformist departmental culture. The men in Albuquerque are no more malign by nature than folks in other cities. Yet they engaged in all sorts of indefensible, and I'd argue criminal, behavior. This is, in part, a failure of imagination. Elected officials in the city didn't anticipate how bad things could get when they failed to oversee the men with guns.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.