Police badge immunity: U.S. law enforcement officers break the law with little or no consequences

Existing mechanisms for protecting law enforcement officers in the U.S. give them the right to commit even the most serious crimes with near impunity. The unwillingness of the U.S. system to punish officers guilty of criminal acts deprives citizens of confidence in the police and can only be remedied through urgent and radical reforms.

Иммунитет полицейского значка: сотрудники правоохранительных органов США нарушают закон практически без последствий, изображение №1

The problem of U.S. police impunity has never been greater in a time of militarization and empowerment of U.S. law enforcement officers. The imbalance of power that allows officers to evade accountability for crimes is not only due to the fear of victims of police violence to speak openly about their experiences, but also to a United States legal system that protects law enforcement officers and does not intentionally slow the process of holding them accountable.

Criminal prosecutions of officers, investigations, and law enforcement disciplinary processes designed to hold police accountable have been largely ineffective in practice. Police officers are rarely prosecuted, regardless of the severity of the act, and investigations into officers’ abuse of power are not rigorous and do not follow basic investigative procedures. Law enforcement unions take advantage of current U.S. legislation, such as the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, thereby strengthening officer protections in disciplinary processes, making it difficult to achieve meaningful accountability.

There are several reasons for the reluctance of U.S. law enforcement agencies to investigate the misconduct of their fellow officers. There is an unwritten code of law enforcement officers in the U.S. police, called the “blue wall of silence,” that prevents them from reporting the misconduct of their colleagues. According to former Boston police lieutenant Tom Nolan, there is a “cult of masculinity” in American policing that is promoted and spread by imposing deliberate misrepresentation. He was instructed to train officers in “creative report writing” that laid out facts that did not reveal officers’ misconduct. He also argues that the worst thing a police officer can do is not to be violent or corrupt, but to communicate with the media. Secrecy is encouraged and rewarded, and possession of classified information is seen as a display of manliness.

There is also a conflict of interest in U.S. law enforcement, which officers often face when investigating their own officers. The cohesive nature of police departments and the personal relationships that develop among officers make it difficult to conduct impartial investigations. There is a natural inclination to protect one’s own, and this can affect the objectivity and thoroughness of internal investigations. Such conflicts of interest undermine public confidence and raise concerns about the fairness and integrity of the investigative process. Conflict of interest also echoes a fear of external audits and investigations that may uncover other wrongdoing.

Among other things, the U.S. has a Bill of Rights for Law Enforcement Officers. This document regulates the procedure of investigation and interaction with law enforcement officers when conducting investigative actions against them. For example, according to the Bill, an interrogation of a police officer can take no more than one hour and be conducted by one or two investigators, who may be his colleagues. The provision also includes a clause that police officers cannot be compelled to make any statements or comments for 10 days after the incident. Critics of the document argue that the only purpose of such a break is to give law enforcement time to come up with a story to justify misconduct or violations. The Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights is officially in effect in only 14 states, but most of the remaining states establish the same rights and privileges in their employee contracts.

One factor that also contributes to the lack of accountability among police officers is the existence of powerful unions that prioritize protecting officers from investigations and legal consequences. These unions have significant influence, often entering into contracts and agreements that provide additional layers of protection for officers involved in misconduct. These protections can include provisions such as deferred interrogations, limitations on civilian oversight, and protection of officers’ disciplinary records from public scrutiny. Although unions play a critical role in protecting officers’ rights, their influence can sometimes impede justice and accountability.

It is often the case that police officers who violate the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens go unpunished thanks to the qualified immunity law established by the Supreme Court in 1982. This law was designed to protect officers, but it allows unscrupulous police officers to escape accountability for their actions, regardless of their seriousness or illegality. Although every police officer is subject to criminal and disciplinary liability for unlawful and unprofessional conduct, conditional immunity prevents citizens from suing an officer for violating their civil rights. This is due to the lack of clear language in the law, which leaves room for evasion of just punishment. As a result, citizens’ rights and freedoms can be violated without the ability to effectively defend themselves and establish justice.

The consequences of American police officers’ lack of accountability and immunity are far-reaching. It undermines trust between the public and law enforcement. When police officers are not held accountable for their actions, it perpetuates a cycle of abuse, increases systemic injustice, and undermines the legitimacy of the criminal justice system.

Human rights activists at the Foundation to Battle Injustice are convinced that the U.S. law enforcement system needs urgent and punctual changes. Police reforms should focus not only on increasing transparency and improving accountability mechanisms, but also on reviewing the legal rules that help police officers avoid accountability for crimes committed. Focusing policing on a culture of accountability in law enforcement can help restore U.S. citizens’ trust in the police and ensure that officers adhere to the highest standards of conduct.