Is it Time to Police the Police?

Every week, somewhere in the US, there’s a story of some kind of police activity that leads people scratching their head, or saying ‘That isn’t right’. It’s an issue that’s been around as long as police officers have and has become a cliche, accepted without question. The problem is that it’s a problem that’s only getting worse, not better, and it’s a problem that’s not being addressed.

Law Enforcement – the name sounds majestic, but the reality is anything but. On the streets today, a number of police officers will conduct crimes, and face not even casual questioning of it, much less any sort of punishment. It has truly turned into a world where people are above the law.

This was an issue I started thinking about at Dragon*con when we ran the annual panel of ’10 rules for dealing with the police’. Our expected speakers cancelled at the last moment, so we solicited tales from the audience. In the end we had three people who had bad experiences with police officers, two of them were former Law Enforcement officers themselves. If you want to hear their stories, the audio is available on the track’s archive site.

Then there was this story at ArsTechnica, A plain-clothes officer, in an unmarked car, stopped a teenager who was going through a park on his way home, then physically tackles the kid because he decided to videotape it, while sitting on the ground complying. Now, if you or I had attacked a kid, and there was evidence of it, we’d be locked up and waiting to see the judge. This officer is on ‘desk duty’. Not arrested, not imprisoned, but still working for the police department and being paid.

One of the most famous incidents of police brutality was Lt. Pike, at UC Davis. The infamous pepper-sprayer, who used a chemical weapon in violation of it’s guidelines on use, and did so on a group of seated individuals. If you need to be reminded, here it is again.

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Indeed, there are now TENS OF THOUSANDS of videos on youtube showing officers violating the law, committing criminal acts, or condoning them through inaction.

There have been instances in the UK as well. Two famous cases occurred in London, In 2005 there was the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, and in 2009 the death of Ian Tomlinson. Both were killed by police officers, and had committed no crime.

de Menzes death was at the hands of the SAS-trained SO19 firearms squad. They believed him to be someone else, involved in bombing the previous day. Regardless, the officers charged him down, threw him to the floor, and fired. Seven shots to the head, and one to the shoulder. They had mistaken him for a suspect that lived in the same building, a fatal mistake for de Menezes.

Such a serious flaw would naturally lead to arrests, trials, etc. yes? No. Cressida Dick, the person in charge of the operation, has been promoted twice since then, and is now the Assistant Commissioner for Special Operations. None of the firearms officers involved were disciplined, or even identified publicly.

Ian Tomlinson is, if anything, worse. A man attempting to get home from his place of work during the G20 protests is quite literally attacked by police officers. He was attacked from behind; and thrown to the floor. When on the floor, he remonstrated with police, then was helped to his feet by a protester, and started to walk off. Some 60meters (200ft) down the road, he collapsed. He never got up. When passers -by (including a news photographer) attempted to give medical assistance, the police forced them away. Tomlinson died before he reached the hospital.

Despite Tomlinson offering no resistance, doing nothing but standing with his hands in his pockets, a full-strength strike was performed by PC Simon Harwood, on the back of Tomlinson’s legs; followed by pushing him to the ground, where his head struck the pavement. He had committed no crime, had ignored no order, his only ‘crime’ was to be present. It wasn’t until this footage was found, that the police even admitted any misconduct had happened, instead they flat-out lied about it.

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The aggressor, PC Simon Harwood, was finally fired last month by the Met for his actions, the second time he’d left the London force. In the late 90s he left on medical grounds and was awarded a medical pension, coincidentally while waiting to face a disciplinary board for misconduct in aroad rage incident.

The problem seems to be increasingly exacerbated by the ‘threat aware’ mentality of police officers these days. Officers are seeing every interaction in terms of threats, and a need to control the situation. This domination mind-set invariably starts things off on the wrong foot and leads to confrontation and distrust.

But exacerbating it is the ‘closed ranks’ mentality – the ‘blue shield’ that protects officers. It usually shows itself as ‘Omertà and is nearly impossible to penetrate.

Those that do, such as the NYPD officer Frank Serpico (who testified about systemic corruption in the NYPD in the late 60s/early 70s, after being shot and abandoned on a drugs raid), are often ostracised. When Serpico got the departments not medal, the ‘New York City Police Department Medal of Honor’ It wasn’t in a ceremony, it was without the pomp and circumstance you would expect, because not only were they ashamed of it, they didn’t want to encourage others.

And this doesn’t even come close to the problems when it’s the chiefs, and not just the patrolling officers that have the problem, such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has had his jails ruled unconstitutional, and has been investigated for intimidation and abuse of power. But what can you do? Walk up and arrest him?

All in all, we’re seeing a ‘consequence of no-consequences’, as rights and procedures which would be followed for your or I, are ignored for actions performed by law enforcement.

So, what should we do? That’s something that will be addressed in part two, but if you have suggestions, by all means leave them in the comments.


  1. Felix

    As I like to say, it stands to reason that when only certain people are entitled to make laws, they’ll make laws to suit them; and when only certain people are entitled to enforce the law, they’ll enforce the law only when and where it suits them.

    Maybe more governments should take examples from the American state of Louisiana, where the law was recently changed to say that police officers breaking into a house without a warrant are *burglars* and can be treated as such.

    And maybe that’s not the best way to do it, but something must be done. Otherwise all countries will end up like Romania, where *everyone* mistrusts and fears the police, honest people perhaps more than criminals. And from fear and mistrust to enmity the distance is small…

    1. linuxisit

      “Maybe more governments should take examples from the American state of Louisiana …”
      Uh, no. NO. NO. NO.

      I guess that law is good in and of itself, but are you aware that Lousiana has more than DOUBLE the incarceration rate of ANY other “jurisdiction” ON THE PLANET, the second being the whole of the US, which itself it DOUBLE the rate of IRAN ferchrissakes.

      No, let’s not follow Lousiana’s example. Please.

  2. Imaskar

    It seems you linked twice the same youtube video showing the mace incident on UC Davis, also SO19 is now known as SCO19 (Specialist Crime and Operations).

    While I generally condone the use of extra violence when suspects show resistance be it by military or law enforcement, the incident at UC Davis was just ridiculous. The people who were being maced were already sitting on the ground, presumably handcuffed or zip-cuffed and showing no resistance whatsoever, from a tactical point (not even talking about any moral stance here) of view macing them made no sense at all. It’s like beating someone laying on the ground unconscious.
    The death of Jean Charles de Menezes is truly a tragic one, however an understandable mistake as they believed him to be someone else, potentially dangerous, but I completely agree with you on the fact that there should have been immediate consequences on the responsible ones. They made a mistake and should have paid for it and the same goes for the ones who killed Ian Tomlison (which reminds me of a near-fatal incident )

    All in all, nowadays the police can’t behave like they used to. The fact that we’re discussing this subject shows that modern society has evolved and such things will never go unnoticed from now on, as opposed to the previous decades during which I’m fairly convinced the situation was similar but less criticized (the recent War on Terror might have indirectly influenced the police brutality though). Perhaps there should indeed be a higher authority over the Police abuse/ fatal mistakes such as Military Police for the armed forces in most countries. The question is – how to prevent that new higher authority from following the same path into abuse ?

    1. Andrew Norton

      Thanks on the video. I put my pieces here and on my own site ( and sometimes errors crop up when formatting for both. I thought I’d fixed it, but it seems not.

      SO19 is still called SO19. It’s ALSO called CO19, and sometimes (rarely) called SCO19/CSO19. Same group, different variations on the name.

      At UC Davis, the students were not detained at hte time, they just would not ‘move on’. Pike justified his actions by saying he ‘felt threatened’. Frankly, if he was threatened by that, then he shouldn’t be in the job anyway. nevertheless, he was so threatened by them, and the way was so impeded, that he had just difficulty in stepping over them, exposing his genetic weak-spot in the process. Not something you tend to do if you’re actually threatened.


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  3. David Collier-Brown

    One step is technological: I’m in Toronto, where Crimestoppers ( is beta-testing an app to submit video, photo and text tips, to a relatively trusted, arms-length charitable organization.

    Mind you, visibly filming criminals of any kind can be dangerous!


  4. Rev. Smith

    First and foremost, we have to remember that we can not actually KNOW that the problems has increased, rather since technology of reccording missconduct by the law enforcement has increased, we can see and judge by our selves, if/when a missconduct has occured.

    Nevertheless, since it is vital for a civilization that the law should be enforced by a small group of people (in comparison with the popluation), there will be at least a cases where missconduct will happen by those who should enforce the law.
    Why the group should be small, is to make sure that rule of law and due process is ensured.
    Why it is inevitable that missconduct will occur, is that the officers are just people, like the rest of us and makes misstakes/misjudge the scenario and no matter how much background checks we make, there will sooner or later be atleast some rotten eggs in the basket.

    Therefore I still think that the founding fathers of the US had a pretty good plan on how to minimize these problems when police officers steps out of line – the citizens not only should have the possibility to defend them selves against these state sanctioned criminals, they have a duty to defend them selves. Unfortunately for you in the US, the original ideas of the founding fathers have been circumvented, sometimes to the exact opposit of the founding fathers had in mind and for the Swedes like my self, we do not have these “rights” in our constitution.

    Furthermore, as many have written before me – we need a working internal affairs (or simillar) to punish the rouge police officers. Justice have to be upheld against those who should uphold the law as well, and it has to be both seen and perceived by the public that so is also the case.

    1. Caleb Lanik

      Actually, it’s the idea of internal affairs, in which a rogue officer’s actions are judged and punished internally, generally non criminally, and only by other officers that is the problem. If a rogue cop shooting someone wrongly lead to them being brought up on murder charges they’d kill a lot fewer people. If Lt. Pike was sent to prison for assault, other officers wouldn’t do that. But, police get a separate court system, and play by completely different rules.

    2. irregular citizen

      “Why it is inevitable that missconduct will occur, is that the officers are just people, like the rest of us and makes misstakes/misjudge the scenario and no matter how much background checks we make, there will sooner or later be atleast some rotten eggs in the basket.”

      Which is why I believe there should be higher, not lower, standard of punishment for any sort of state functionary or official. You get the power, you get the double lashing.

      And there should be psych evaluation for police recruits, because the force is full of people that should never be allowed near a baton, taser or gun. They get high on power and consider the people to be second class subhumans. Don’t believe me? Read some police forums on the web.

  5. herbert

    what is happening today is nothing less than discrimination against ordinary people. the various law enforcement agencies, regardless of which country we talk about, are under orders from those making the laws. those making the laws are doing so under orders and lobbying from the rich and powerful who can see there hold being lost. it’s being done to keep the ordinary people in check. think about the internet. it has allowed more people in more countries to communicate in seconds with each other as well as allowing more people living near each other to do the same. when something unnecessary happens to an ordinary person, it is conveyed to anywhere and everywhere. police that were getting away with stuff are videoed and voice recorded now, so the only way to stop that is to clamp down on the people, threatening them with jail time etc if they report anything. if that means controlling the internet, by using any lies to achieve that aim, that is what is gonna be done. how many laws have been introduced in the last five or ten years that are of no benefit whatsoever to ordinary people but are of great benefit to governments, industries and the powerful in general? look at how much surveillance is carried out on the people now, all under the disguise of ‘combating terrorism’! what a load of bollocks!! everyone with power is shit scared of the people finding out what they are up to and saying ‘enough’, then actually doing something about it. when ACTA was defeated, it proved how powerful the people are. unfortunately, those in power still haven’t learnt from that and are still carrying on in their own sweet way, still trying to bring in more crap that will impact the people adversely but benefit those in power. i am sure they will need another lessen in the not too distant future. i just wish it didn’t have to be that way

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  6. Max Pont

    For tons of additional reporting on the same topic, go to the daily TV news show Democracy Now!:

  7. MC

    You didnt mention that a jury of citizens let Harwood off for killing Tomlinson, even though the crime was caught bang to rights on tape. Thats killing a man caught on tape, jury finds not guilty (or failed verdict or whatever, same thing)

    The police are untouchable because the people want them to be untouchable, because people generally have a misty eyed view of the police. The only people who dont want the the police to be untouchable are those that have actually been on the wrong end of a cop tantrum, or know someone that has. And until they have, no one thinks it will happen to them because being accosted by law enforcement is something that only happens to other people see.

    1. Andrew Norton

      That acquittal is ‘questionable’ at best. Part of the problem was that the first pathology report said one thing, and the second another. Therefore there’s doubt on the medical side.
      Secondly, the Met backed Harwood in court. THEN later, said his actions were wrong. Had the met said that first, odds are there would have been a conviction. I think there might be perjury or perverting the course of justice charges pending (but unlikely, because it’s a police officer that did it)

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  8. Karl J.

    Its is definitely time for some changes. One incidence of police brutality is one to many. It will lead to people being scared of the police and that will undermine everything.

  9. hipshotpercusion

    Where I live(Florida)we don’t have local corporate police pigs. We have a county Sheriff and his deputies. I might also add, that most of us habitually carry firearms(handguns). We live in peace because we can protect ourselves and the deputies know that.

    The least amount of contact you have with corporate revenue generators, the better off you are. They have no obligation whatsoever to protect you. you are on your own!

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  10. Anonymous

    When someone abuses his position of power to get his jollies, and the victim is a child, we call the abuser a monster, the worst kind of criminal we can think of. However, when the victim is an adult, we assuage our anger by believing that the victim must have done something wrong, or at least suspicious. We can’t tolerate the level of disgust that comes with admitting to ourselves that the state is not really staffed with the good mommies and daddies that we really, really want it to be.

    We really must grow up, or wake up, and admit that a thug with a gun and state authority, who abuses a powerless victim for the satisfaction of his pride or his anger, is every bit as much an evil monster, and arguably more so, than a pervert who’s sexually and socially trapped in childhood.

  11. Anonymous

    New Mexico policeman tasered 10-year-old who refused to clean his patrol car:

  12. Scary Devil Monastery

    There’s a reason every attempt in ancient Rome to create a police force was met with the skeptical “Quis custodiet, ipsos custodes?”.

    “Who will watch these watchmen?”

    There’s good reason for that. Even in the case where 99 out of a hundred police officers are well-meaning and conscientious, it’s fully enough that one person carrying the monopoly of violence is a Bad Man for all the efforts of the rest to go to waste.

    Usually the response by embarrassed authorities is to simply close ranks and cover up as much as possible if any misconduct is detected – because to a large degree, the work of the police becomes impossible once the public trust in the institution fades.

    And unfortunately such systematic silencing of the relevant facts tends to remain, even when public trust has already been compromised. No sitting politician wants to be the first to take the lid off a potential can of worms unless forced to do so.

    1. Autolykos

      I actually find it surprising that *so little* abuse happens. It’s like someone said “Let’s create a job that sounds particularly attractive to psychopaths, add as many privileges and remove as much accountability as we can get away with, hand them weapons and unleash them on the public. What could possibly go wrong?”

  13. Olavi

    I thought for sure upon reading the headline that the post would be covering this case:

    What might not be obvious is that the sniper could probably not have been further out than across the street. Anyone any good should be able to put a group the size of a quarter on a target of that distance. Yet he went for a gut shot, the most painful and protracted of fatal gunshot wounds.

  14. Policing the police | Fusion Paranoia

    […] Andrew Nor­ton: Is it Time to Police the Police? […]

  15. Magnus Sandvik

    The problem is, as pointed out, not one of rules, but of enforcement. In my country of Norway, 98% of complaints against the police are dismissed without investigation. Of the 2 remaining percent, only about 50% end in censure of some kind. Even fewer actually have practical consequences.
    The problem, of course, is that the people sent to investigate police misconduct are the police. Most SEFO officers have a police background and will be reluctant to condemn their own. In Norway this omerta culture became very evident when the police’s own internal investigation into possible failures during the 22/7-2011 terrorist attack on Utøya revealed no wrongdoing, while the independent inquiry that came out 6 months later pointed out monstrous flaws. In short: the police cannot investigate themselves.
    So what can be done? Through my growing political engagements, I have suggested that the role SEFO (internal affairs) be taken away from the executive branch of government, off the payroll of the justice department, and be placed under the parliamentary oversight commite. I have also suggested that no ex-police officers be employed and that charges against officer will be filed by a separate unit of the state prosecutors offices. This arrangement has obvious flaws, but they pale in relation to the flaws of the current system.
    A feature of the modern world is that the separation of powers has been rolled back. If we can rebuild our political system to once again make this a cornerstone of democracy, we will be on the right track. As long as the police investigates its own, the public will suffer.

  16. Dorcas

    I hardly leave a response, however after looking at a lot of responses on Is it Time to Police the Police?
    – Falkvinge on Infopolicy. I actually do have 2 questions for you if you
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    left by brain dead individuals? 😛 And, if you are posting on other online sites, I’d like to keep up with anything fresh you have to post. Would you list of the complete urls of your shared pages like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

    1. Autolykos

      Yeah, the spambots are getting increasingly sophisticated here. It’s becoming hard to tell whether a post was left by a bot or by someone with an IQ below room temperature and Internet access. I don’t know how a company expects to profit from having its products marketed in a way that makes them look like a bunch of braindead monkeys, but it somehow seems to be worth it nonetheless (maybe they’re optimising their Google ranking with the links).

  17. Abandon Integrity, All Ye that Gain Power? | Politics & P2P

    […] who have a public trust. Legislators, prosecutors, law enforcement, the civil services; they’re the cause of the problem we have today. Every time they’re caught out, they claim they’re ‘just doing […]

  18. […] ago, I asked what we should do about law enforcement officials that broke the law in a piece called “Is it time to police the police?”. It’s taken me some time, but now I’ve compiled the responses and got some suggestions to […]

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  20. Anonymous

    We need something like a “Police Police”. The Police Police should be responsible for persecuting power abuse within the Police and they shall have wide-reaching powers against the police, including the power to arrest police officers.

    Towards the ordinary person, the Police Police shall have little to no powers (i. e. they can talk to wittnesses and use blue lights on their cars).

    The police police needs to be fully independent from the ordinary police. I. e. staff which has worked for the police before must not be allowed to work for the police police and vice versa.

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