Dugan: The bill of rights for police

BY JACK DUGAN | MAY 07, 2015 5:00 AM

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Recent events in Baltimore have brought a lot of law enforcement policies, actions, or habits into the national dialogue yet again. One aspect of law enforcement, specifically Maryland law enforcement, is a certain legal document that grants special rights to police officers in case of investigation or legal action against them.

This document is called the “Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights” (LEOBR), which is a piece of officer privilege that, more or less, attaches to the regular Bill of Rights reserved for regular citizens. But the Maryland LEOBR grants officers a ‘10-day cooling period’ between questioning and the initial accusation, which seems excessive.

However, Maryland isn’t the only state that utilizes such a document. There is a version of the LEOBR in fourteen different states, including Iowa. So why do the police need special treatment in the eyes of the law? The idea of an officer’s bill of rights was set forth around 1974, in the wake of two distinct cases concerning law enforcement officers: Garrity v. New Jersey and Gardner v. Broderick, the result of the two holding that officers should be legally immune from losing their jobs over coerced confessions or refusing to sign things like a ‘waiver of immunity.’

From my understanding, the Fifth Amendment ought to take care of that. Also, seeing as how a LEOBR had yet to pertain to either of those cases, and the courts still ruled in favor of them, the entire idea of an officer specific Bill of Rights seems flawed or useless from the start.

The existence of the LEOBR is not evidence of officer specific discrimination, but of special treatment of police officers, fueling the idea that officers seemed to be held above the law in certain situations. This is also seen statistically in cases involving accusations of police abusing their positions of power.

In a 2014 report presented to the United Nations by the We Charge Genocide coalition, of the 10,149 complaints of excessive force, illegal searches, racial abuse or false arrest between 2002 - 2004 in Chicago alone, only 124 were sustained, and only 19 cases led to a penalty of suspension of at least a week or worse.

There was also the recent case of the murder of Eric Garner, where the officers that were filmed inadvertently suffocating a person to death, weren’t even indicted by a grand jury. It seems as the numbers are already on the sides of police officers, and further legislation isn’t needed to elevate them above other American citizens.

Perhaps this is why the Freddie Gray case is so monumental, as the six officers involved with his death have actually all been charged with second-degree assault, and the highest charge among them second-degree murder. I see this as a step forward in terms of equal justice: those who believe those officers to be guilty should at least have the opportunity to prove so in a court of law.

The LEOBR doesn’t grant officers the license to murder, but its existence is symbolic evidence of something bigger: the tendency of our judicial system to deal meager ‘slaps on the wrist’ or to all together ignore crimes committed by officers, which would otherwise destroy the lives of regular American citizens.

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