Excessive Force

As America reels from the George Floyd incident, it’s time to discuss how to fix the problem of law enforcement and the use of excessive force. The first steps are pretty simple. 

Law enforcement agencies need to be more careful in hiring and then monitoring “Peace officers” (“peace officer” is a generic term that applies to police officers, sheriffs deputies, and any other law-enforcement officer). Agencies should look closely at any potential racial bias in candidates.

Agencies that oversee peace officers need to be more rigorous in applying their standards. Years ago, I filed a lawsuit against an Arizona sheriff’s deputy who was charged with and convicted of committing sexual crimes against my client. Through that process, I learned a lot about how law-enforcement agencies hire and monitor their employees.

After learning about this deputy’s history, it was clear to me that he never should’ve been hired, and that he should’ve been fired before the incident occurred.

The application process for peace officers is relatively extensive. Lengthy written applications are generally required, along with an interview and a psychological evaluation. In my case, the psychological assessment suggested possible anger issues and issues with women. Based on this, The deputy in question never should’ve been hired.

The problem in that case?

The person in charge of doing the background investigation had never done a background investigation before. Law enforcement agencies need to take this very seriously, and any possible issues regarding fitness should preclude a candidate. Anything but a perfect score on a psychological evaluation should be unacceptable.

The application process must include questions touching on racial issues. This is critical. Psychologists or psychiatrists doing the psychological evaluation should and must explore racial bias.

Peace officers need to be carefully monitored after they’re hired. All law-enforcement agencies have an “Internal Affairs” division that is supposed to oversee officer conduct. In the George Floyd case, the officer in question has multiple prior complaints against him. Had the department’s internal affairs division been more vigilant, the officer would’ve lost his job long ago.

Law enforcement agencies need to do a better job of hiring and monitoring their officers.

And there’s still more we can do. In Arizona, there’s an organization known as “APOST,” or, the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board. Anyone serving as a police officer or sheriff’s deputy in Arizona must be certified and in good standing with this organization. These organizations sometimes hear complaints regarding certified officers, and they, too, need to be more careful in their certification process.

APOST should require all Arizona law-enforcement agencies to have non-discrimination policies. APOST should require that pre-employment psychological evaluations cover racial issues.

Each agency should have mandatory, formal non-discrimination policies as well as mandatory racial sensitivity training. 

Peace officers perform a vital and necessary role in our society. We cannot exist as a civilized society without law enforcement. At the same time, we trust peace officers to protect our most cherished values – including life and liberty. We have to be highly selective in whom we hire.

As a federal prosecutor in the 1990s, I had the opportunity to work with many such officers (federal and state/local). The vast majority of these people were conscientious, ethical, and hard-working.

It is my firmly held belief that the majority of peace officers in the United States fit this description.

But “most” isn’t enough.

I challenge all law-enforcement agencies and oversight agencies to be more vigilant in hiring and monitoring officers in this country. I challenge these same agencies to adopt mandatory non-discrimination policies and screening.

We can do this – and we must do this.