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The Appeal Podcast: Why Police Accountability is as Elusive as Ever

With Appeal staff reporter George Joseph.

Maddie McGarvey/Getty Images

“Police accountability” is a term that gets thrown around a lot in conversations about criminal justice reform. But how do we make sure police officers who break laws or department rules are held to account? The reality––even four years after Ferguson––is that little progress has been made in creating structures that discipline police officers for bad behavior. Our guest, Appeal reporter George Joseph, has been doing deep dives into police discipline in cities across America. The findings? A system that still routinely protects its worst offenders.

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Adam Johnson: Hi, welcome to The Appeal Podcast. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can follow us on social media, Twitter @TheAppealPod,or go to Facebook and see The Appeal magazine’s general Facebook, where our show posts there, and of course you can always subscribe to us on iTunes. The term police accountability is one that gets thrown around a lot in criminal justice reform circles. How do we make sure that police officers who break department rules and even the law are held accountable? The reality, even four years after Ferguson, is that little to no progress has been made in creating structures that discipline police officers for bad behavior either on a federal or local level. Our guest, The Appeal’s, George Joseph, has been doing deep dives into police discipline in a number of cities for months. The findings, the system that still routinely protects its worst offenders.

[Begin Clip]

George Joseph: Some of these police leaders had over ten plus complaints like numerous taser incidents, mace incidents, that kind of thing. So even at the leadership level, people are learning that doing that kind of aggressive activity doesn’t actually hurt you, in fact either it won’t count against or it may have and help you. If that’s the way they came up and came to be the leaders of the department, why would they suddenly turn around and say, I’m going to discipline you for doing exactly what I did when I was in your position?

[End Clip]

Adam: Hi George. Welcome to The Appeal.

George Joseph: Hey, thanks for having me back.

Adam: So, um, you have been on this beat for about a year, probably longer and you recently wrote an article in the Appeal entitled, “Just 6% of Columbus Police Officers Account for Half of All Force Reports.” Force reports, for those who don’t know, is a sort of complaint about use of force. This is of course not just an issue with the Columbus Police Department. This is a broader national issue. Can you start us off by explaining why so few police officers account for so many of the complaints and to what extent do most police departments, and if you want to zoom in on Columbus, go ahead, why so many police departments have such a totally limp and useless complaint process?

George Joseph: So what we saw in Columbus, as you mentioned, was that there are 6 percent of officers who account for half of all the use of force investigations, so that both includes citizens complaining about force incidents or alleged forced incidents, as well as and this is the majority of the data set, um, officers self reporting their own use of force incidents. So if I tase someone, as an officer, I report it to the chain of command, they investigate me, find that I was perfectly justified and then uh, we go forward. So in Columbus, despite this very small group of people who are accounting for so many complaints, we found that in 99 percent of cases the officers were justified by the department. Their actions rather within policy or the citizen complaint was deemed to be unsustained. And the legal questions about why police departments so often find police not to have done anything wrong, we can see from grand juries all across the country is that even when an officer shoots someone, as long as they say they felt endangered or threatened, pretty much anything can be justified. But what we can say very clearly is that there are concrete reasons for why this concentrated group of people is generating all these complaints and it actually gets, it’s not about like a bunch of psychopaths who are part of one unit cause all the problems. It’s a structural material problem. It’s that certain units and police departments are being encouraged to do the most aggressive types of police work. Jumping out of cars in plain clothes, guns blazing, trying to get guns, trying to grab drugs, stopping people aggressively in poor neighborhoods where if you see a guy with a gun running at you, you may also pull out a gun, and so this obviously leads to escalated situations which result in shootings, beatings, and killings. And in Columbus, what we noticed was in some of the cases, some of the officers with thirty, forty different complaints had been officers who had experience in what is known there as a summer strikeforce, which is one of these plain clothes surveillance units that goes to poor mostly black neighborhoods, jumps out at people and tries to get guns. And as you mentioned across the country, police departments have similar units. They’re considered more prestigious than regular kind of patrol work. And as a result, people aren’t being sanctioned for this activity because it’s what they’re supposed to be doing and they’re rewarded for it.

Adam: Let’s cite one case that you reported on in general. It happened about two years ago, a Columbus police officer, um, there was someone who called in an armed robbery. They said that they, that they, um, were robbed for about $10 and told the dispatcher that they didn’t want to really mess with it. The cops responded to the complaint. They spotted three teenagers, um, two of whom escaped. And one was a 13 year old named Tyre King was shot while fleeing by an officer named Bryan Mason, who himself was white. The quote unquote “suspects” were African American. Now, not surprisingly, it was revealed that Mason had in his nine year career, 47 reports involving force, uh, and  four of those reports stem from previous shootings, which he had shot at a suspect, two of them resulted in death. That’s a lot of complaints. And now so what I want to do is I want to try to tease out the difference between someone who’s just involved in a lot of high risk episodes with those who are, who are, you know, maybe not violent sociopaths or psychopaths as you put it, but people who are maybe have an itchy trigger finger or maybe people who are more susceptible to escalation we’ll say, we’ll put it, we’ll put it in those terms, beyond the kind of material reality of them just being involved in more aggressive policing, because obviously this is also a policy issue. It’s, it isn’t just about the moral failing of a police officer. What are the mechanisms though for let’s say the five, ten percent who do have an itchy trigger finger, who are kind of, who view themselves as being John Wayne or is there any kind of mechanism for any meaningful oversight and I know that different cities are different or different cities have way better oversight. But specifically in Columbus, I mean these numbers are basically just rubber stamp. Police department, of course, investigates itself, finds out nothing happened. If Florence, our producer, did something wrong and there was not and The Appeal Podcast investigated itself, I would unlikely find her guilty because we work together. We’re all friends. Specifically in Columbus, can you talk about what those mechanisms are, what the oversight mechanisms are, if they even exist?

George Joseph: Well, it’s like many police departments across the country. The investigations will be led by an internal affairs bureau which has the power over, you know, who they choose to interview, how they choose to judge certain pieces of evidence and like you said, if the system justifies officers 99 percent of the time, literally, I’m not being hypothetical, then clearly it’s not even worth filing a complaint and officers within the department who we spoke to said citizens don’t lie 99 percent of the time. Why would the officer be punished when you’re telling them this is what good police work is? Which gets to kind of the problem of what police leaderships ask officers to do and there’s this strange kind of discourse emerging now where the police chiefs will kind of be seen as the more moderate, more reasonable, more rational types compared to the grunts at the bottom. The chiefs are, they wear lots of brass and they’ll be on panels at Google and all that kind of stuff, but they are the ones making the rules about what cops are supposed to do to get promoted and what happens when a cop does something that is violent. And so what was interesting to us was looking at some of the top commanders in the department, including one of the deputy ops, like one of the top among the top five, and then some of the district sub commanders. And what we found was even at that level, uh, some of these police leaders had over ten plus complaints, like numerous taser incidents, mace incidents, that kind of thing. So even at the leadership level, people are learning that doing that kind of aggressive activity doesn’t actually hurt you in fact either it won’t count against you or it may even help you, if that’s the way they came up and came to be the leaders of the department, why would they suddenly turn around and say, uh, I’m going to discipline you for doing exactly what I did when I was in your position?

Adam: Right. And this obviously gets to the broader issue amongst reformists, which is to what extent can you even really reform police from an activist standpoint, from people you’ve talked to in the community, people who are trying to work on having more accountability, a conversation that’s obviously been heightened, uh, very much since, since Ferguson. What are the actual good reform tools that police departments can use, if any at all? And then as a followup to that, what are the sort of bad reforms, like what are the reforms you don’t think do a lot of good, what are kind of just window dressing?

George Joseph: There is this problem, uh, with the public wanting the police to not do the bad violent things that we see on TV and that college protests, but then at the same time wanting them to quote unquote “get guns off the streets,” clear the corners so that old ladies can walk out of their houses. Like that’s the kind of thing you’ll hear if you go to a city council meeting or a public community affairs meeting, that’s what some people in the community are asking for. I’m not saying that’s all of them, but certainly a significant amount of them. And so what do you do with that situation? It’s difficult because the very thing you’re asking them to do, grabbing guns from people as police the only way to do that is through these really aggressive methods. I’m not an expert in community models for addressing gun violence. I know a lot of people do work on that area and do delve into that area, but there are probably alternatives to discouraging young people from carrying and using guns beyond jumping out of cars and grabbing them and taking the gun and thinking that that will change their trajectory in terms of gun use down the line. Um, and I don’t think police pulling a couple hundred guns off the street every year has ever really made a big dent in the gun supply market.

Adam: Like you said, this is the sort of, for lack of a better word, the kind of special forces of the police. Right? And to have a bunch of, you know, juiced up white guys with wrap around Oakleys and monster tattoos, jumping out of cars, probably not a good formula for reducing violence and preventing African Americans from being shot by the police. Right?

George Joseph: Well, let me point to the example of Saheed Vassel in that regard, um, who was recently shot and killed in New York. He had numerous, hundreds of interactions with police in his neighborhood before. These aren’t all quote unquote “community policing” interactions. These were a lot of tickets and citations for basically being a person out on the street with mental issues, but they knew who he was and didn’t necessarily think that he was going to go kill someone because everyone on the block knew him. The police knew him in his precinct. The people who ended up shooting him were these plain clothes officers who responded to a call, which is unusual because they’re not generally supposed to do that and came to the scene immediately, didn’t know who he was, saw what they thought was a gun and started shooting. So could that have been avoided if a patrol officer who knew him had responded first? Uh, it’s impossible to say, but it certainly seems much more likely.

Adam: Right. So there’s this kind of strikeforce mentality necessarily leads to more violent encounters.

George Joseph: I mean, the data shows that certainly.

Adam: You reported earlier this year in May about the wildly disproportionate amount of plain clothes police officers involved in violent altercations and fatal shootings. You found out that in the NYPD plain clothes officers make up 6 percent of the force, but account for 31 percent of fatal shooting incidents between the years 2000 and 2017. This is something we see elsewhere as well. Can you talk to us about why plain clothes officers are more likely to be violent? Is it similar to this sort of task force mentality you talked about earlier?

George Joseph: Yeah, it’s quite similar and it’s very striking that, I mean there are different examples. In New York, there’s a lot more fatal incidents. It’s a much bigger city. But just speaking generally about police violence, you see in the same time period roughly 2000 to 2017, in Columbus, 6 percent accounting for half of force incidents. In New York, 6 percent accounting or roughly 6 percent accounting for a third of incidents involving police fatal police shootings. And so like you said, yes, there are similar dynamics at play. In the NYPD article you’re referring to we looked at the NYPD’s plain clothes unit, which has been around for awhile and has always caused controversy because they’ve been behind some of the major police killings in recent New York history and not too different from the summer strike task force in Columbus, they drive around in cars, they don’t focus necessarily on one patrol beat, they don’t necessarily respond to calls generally. They’re out there speeding, going as fast as possible to try jump out at people who may have a gun and oftentimes there’s racial profiling involved in that. People who aren’t dressed in a very fancy way on the street corner, they go out and grab them and do shake downs and you know if you do that, maybe one out of ten times you’ll find a gun and you will be, or I don’t, maybe even less than that frankly, but you’ll get that short term gain of the gun that you found that you now bring to your supervisor and they take a photo and post it on Twitter.

Adam: They love to do that. They love to do that.

George Joseph: Right. They’ll layout the two pistols on the table.

Adam: They got roasted once. There was a police department who had a gun that it appeared like it was from the 1920s.

George Joseph: (Laughing) I think I saw that yeah.

Adam: Do you remember that? And people were like, ‘you caught Dillinger?’ No, they loved doing that.

George Joseph: But what about all the times that you kind of just profiled someone and came up short because you’re pretty much just randomly going after people who you think are, basically look like they’re up to no good. I mean, it’s going to make people hate you in a way.

Adam: It’s a total numbers game. You go to certain locations and you, and we talked about this when you were on the show before about how if you target certain populations, you will invariably find more crime disproportionate to the amount of crime that actually happens. These police departments aren’t raiding, uh, you know, the Sigma Chi house to look for sexual assault. They’re going after certain populations for very specific reasons because they, mostly because they can and when they’re looking to get convictions because they don’t have money for lawyers and so on and so forth.

George Joseph: In New York, it’s literally a numbers game in that officers allege that they are under a quota system. The NYPD denies it and yet all these recordings come out every few years with supervisors saying, ‘you haven’t given me your numbers for the month,’ and so officers are under pressure to go and, and make those kinds of felony arrests by finding a gun on someone or getting drugs. And so it’s in the nature of what policing is, is meant to be right now.

Adam: On the topic of plain clothes policing, last year in Baltimore, we have a little bit of an A/B test here because Baltimore, they disbanded their plain clothes police force, which is extremely rare. Uh, and really creates an interesting test case. Can we talk about what the logic to that was? Obviously I think the plain clothes police department in Baltimore was a uniquely uniquely corrupt, but has there been any data or any kind of analysis of how it’s affected the policing itself?

George Joseph: That’s a good question. I mean, certainly in Baltimore, beyond plain clothes officers accounting for a lot of violence, there is also a lot of just straight up corruption. So that was controversial because they went a little bit beyond the kind of things they were required to do, but ironically now Baltimore city leadership has talked about bringing them back so it doesn’t seem like anything has really changed and obviously Baltimore has a lot of murders, a lot of shootings and people seem to not feel like taking them away really fixed anything. Yet on the other hand, while they were there, they didn’t really seem to fix anything either.

Adam: Well, what about the plain clothes concept? Is policing led to or correlated with the corruption of the Baltimore Police Department? Because I mean the Baltimore Police Department, I mean for those who don’t follow these things, it makes the NYPD look like the Osmond family, sort of notoriously corrupt in a way that is pretty brazen. Do we have any indication as to why there was a correlation there between plain clothes and corruption? Because I mean plain clothes and violent interactions, you can sort of see, okay, well they don’t see that they’re a cop and they pull their gun out, but was that kind of best of the best elite mentality also given the perception that they’re above the law?

George Joseph: That’s a really good question. I haven’t studied the issue enough to talk about how the kind of plain clothes mentality bleeds into police corruption. But from an intuitive perspective it seems like when you start to dress up like someone who’s like a bad guy and you deal with people in a much less official way and off the books way and you start working your sources and kind of going into this underworld, for lack of a better term, you can sometimes lose yourself in it because not everyone who’s a drug dealer is putting their money in a bank account and like keeping good records for the IRS. So there’s a lot of temptations out there.

Adam: Yeah. They have a habit of not filing their taxes.

George Joseph: Yeah. And they don’t file drug, uh, purchases. Um, there’s a lot of temptations in a city like Baltimore. I mean, in New York you don’t probably have that to the same degree because there is honestly not the same degree of underground economic activity happening. But in cities like Chicago and Baltimore, that activity is happening and the city’s responses to send swarms of police there, and then you get these units that effectively become their own gangs, literally dealing drugs and selling people, that kind of thing.

Adam: You’ve done a lot of investigations over the years into spying of protest movements. What is the difference, if there is any, between plain clothes policemen and undercover policemen?

George Joseph: I think it’s just whatever the police PR person happens to feel like that day.

Adam: Okay. There was an incident in Oakland in 2014 were to CHP officers, California Highway Patrol, which is the state police in California, pulled their guns out on protesters after there was an incident where someone spotted them or alleged that they were cops and they pulled their guns out and it was a huge incident because (a) why were they there?  (b) The Oakland Police didn’t know they were there and their first response was to go full Charles Bronson and vanish their weapons and this confluence of undercover versus plain clothes, and they kept insisting these cops were not undercover. They were just plain clothes, but they looked like protesters, they were like doing chance. Is this a distinction do you think actually matters? And to what extent do you think the use of plainclothes to infiltrate activists is something that you see as more common or it’s more, it’s kind of a go to because they’re sort of already off the books?

George Joseph: Well, we definitely know it’s common because at the same time that, uh, you referenced the incident in California we obtained documents showing how the NYPD was sending quote unquote “undercovers” or plain clothes, whatever words you wanna use, um, people who you wouldn’t know are cops and are pretending to be protesters at Black Lives Matter demonstrations all across the city. And these demonstrations were documented over and over again in the police logs as peaceful, nonviolent, etcetera, etcetera. Yet they were not only attending the protests but also following them on social media, passing around pictures of activists and somehow obtaining access to organize your group texts. I’m not exactly sure how that happened, but we have documents from lawsuits, uh, which we published in The Guardian a few years ago showing that. Um, so it seems to be that all across the country police feel it’s very important to spy on protests about police violence. I mean, I think it probably makes sense why they want to do that.

Adam: Yeah. Um, so before you go, just want to ask you a sort of 30,000 foot question, have you seen in your years writing about this topic, do you see any meaningful change? We’re about the four year mark since Ferguson, in your mind, have these movements beared meaningful fruit and what kind of tactics do you see as working and not working?

George Joseph: My sense is that after these huge rebellions and protests took place in 2014 and people saw that they did mass protests and the cities would get shut down and then the National Guard would come in and this happened all over the country, obviously, Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlotte. All over the place. They’re still wasn’t the political power to necessarily indict officers or the willingness from county DAs to do so and to do so in a way that would actually get convictions. Now, some people obviously don’t think convicting police officers is really the answer to these problems and I think that’s true and that it doesn’t really address the issue systemically, but it does reflect how little power the public has to hold officers accountable by the general ways that we expect other members of society to be held quote unquote “accountable.” And I feel that since that kind of heyday of the Black Lives Matter movement, a large part of the reason that people aren’t protesting on the streets in massive numbers for regular police violence, that is still happening and has not changed since the news stopped covering it is because they see that the protests, um, without any sort of significant political power don’t really lead to any change. Um, so I think that with this movement to focus on DA races and starting to take more power in terms of urban politics, there’s a possibility that that could change in the near future. But I’m generally an optimistic person.

Adam: Yeah. Well, yeah I think the, I think the pivot to DAs is driven largely by necessity with an understanding that there’s just more democratic control over that, uh, and that police departments are always going to kind of be like, you know, the CIA or the military, they’re kind of a permanent state in a lot of these cities, like they’re not, you know, the police run the security for Bill de Blasio, you know, how much can you really push back against people who run your security all day? Uh, you know, he actually thought they were spying on him in his 2013 campaign, there’s no evidence of that, but he thought they were. So the very fact that he thought they were is somewhat chilling. So yeah, I think that’s, um, I think that’s interesting. I really appreciate that perspective and I really want to thank you for not giving me false optimism. (Laughs)

George Joseph: (Laughs)

Adam: We try to play it straight here. So I appreciate that.

George Joseph: Well, thanks Adam. Appreciate it too.

Adam: Thanks so much George.

George Joseph: Okay talk to you later.

Adam: Thank you to our guest George Joseph. Great as always. This has been The Appeal Podcast. Remember, you can follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod and you can subscribe to us on iTunes just look for The Appeal Podcast and of course you can follow The Appeal magazine’s main website at The Appeal on Facebook. This show has been produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Sarah Leonard. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much and we’ll see you next week.