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June 15, 2020

The police are policing themselves

Five points on how the US system protects the authorities.

Edited by Iliana Papangeli
Translated by Gigi Papoulias

 

Every morning, on my way to work I listen to The Daily podcast by New York Times journalist Michael Barbaro. His podcast is extensive and analytical, his speaking voice clear and pleasant; through research and interviews, in 20-30 minutes, you are informed about what’s happening on the other side of the world.

Recently in Greece, podcasts have become very popular. The first podcast I heard was a few years ago, on The Guardian, where photojournalists from war zones shared their experiences from “another world”. I won’t write about the art of podcasts here – my topic today is police brutality. A few days after the assassination of George Floyd, Barbaro spoke to Shaila Dewan, a NYT reporter covering criminal justice issues.

Dewan analyzed the reasons why the US system protects the authorities and portrays them as “father figures” even when the legitimate force they use exceeds the limits. Dewan spoke about the open databases – an unknown word for the Greek police – that each police station has, which contain information about the delinquent behavior of police officers. Many of the databases are not updated so that there is not enough information about the work history of the police.

Derek Chauvin (what a strange surname, similar to the word “chauvinist”) the officer who killed Floyd, has a total of 17 complaints against him in his 19-year career, but we do not know the details of these complaints and whether he was punished. The chief of the Minneapolis police department, who is pushing for change, has fired all four police officers involved in Floyd’s murder, but he may be forced to re-hire them for five main reasons.

  • The police are policing themselves. They investigate the complaints and grievances against their own police officers and they decide on the consequences/punishment. In 2010 in Minneapolis, David Cornelius Smith died in the hands of the police in exactly the same way that Floyd died. The police officers involved in the case were never punished, on the contrary, the chief of police at the time, praised them for their actions.
  • When officers are sentenced, they have the right to appeal, which results in reduced sentences, or they are suspended and eventually re-hired. The board that decides on the punishment often makes a judgement that the charges against the officers are not easy to prove.
  • In the US, there are civilian review boards, in which civilians can participate in assessing the actions of police forces. According to the journalist, Minneapolis has a very good civilian review board. However, the police officers who participate on the boards and have reviewed videos that prove the criminal behavior of their colleagues, usually only make simple recommendations against them. Of the 260 complaints against police officers in Minneapolis, only 12 have been investigated.
  • The police unions have great influence and power and are committed to protecting the jobs of police. The president of the union in Minneapolis, who has 29 complaints against him, is a Trump supporter, is opposed to any reforms to the system and as he has already stated, he will fight for the four police officers who have lost their jobs.
  • In general, in the United States it is difficult to punish the police, as this is their role. The police are given protection, and the system of protection is built on the idea that police officers are doing very dangerous job and no one can deny that, as they are putting their lives on the line. And that proves to be an obstacle to justice.

The journalist concludes that the problem between the police and the citizens is a matter of the architecture of the system, that is, how police forces are structured, which is why the citizens do not trust the institution and want to dismantle it.

But what about the Greek police force? How are they structured? How does the system operate? Have the incidents in Kypseli in Athens and in Ano Poli in Thessaloniki been investigated? Has racial violence been investigated? Some logical questions that as journalists, we are called to investigate.

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