How the Police (and Politicians) Can Regain the Public Trust

A few months 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 float to the global hive-mind that peruses FoI.

First, let’s be clear. Not all cops are ‘dirty’, but at the same time, not all citizens are criminals. Yet since it’s considered acceptable that in many western countries, you have to prove you’ve done no wrong to a police officer, rather than they have to prove a criminal act has been committed, it’s only fair to consider them the same way.

So let’s start with some processes. In many police jurisdictions, when a police officer is suspected of a crime, or malfeasance they are generally suspended on full pay, or put on ‘desk work’. A criminal act would be investigated, an arrest made, and most jobs won’t pay you if you’re sitting in a cell. In the UCDavis pepper-spraying, we saw Lt. Pike do it. In the Tomlinson case, there was video evidence that he was attacked by an officer unprovoked. Both officers were kept at full pay during the investigations.

CHANGE – Where there is prima facie evidence that a crime has been committed, he should be suspended from his job, and treated like any other criminal. No working as an officer (or security guard), no badge, no gun, no perks, no pension, and no pay.

While some will say it’s harsh, it’s no more than the rest of us face. And it may return a measure of ‘think first’ to those on the job, who won’t be assured of a lengthy paid vacation if they’re caught doing what they shouldn’t. Additionally, police officers are often not keen on their actions being documented. Many officers in the US have tried to apply wiretapping statutes to recordings of officers performing their duties (yet again, they can record you and be exempt from the same laws). Also, some states have forces that are less than ‘open’ with their recordings. In Oklahoma, for instance, police dashcam recordings are classed as records for the purpose of the open records law, with one exception, state troopers, and now judges in that state have been expanding on it.

CHANGE – Any attempts by officials to prevent, halt or damage recordings without good reason (such as it actually impeding the arrest) to be charged with the relevant evidence tampering or investigation impeding laws. All officer camera footage (be it mounted in a room, on the officer or a piece of equipment) is to be considered an open record for the purpose of all relevant laws, while still being mindful of data protection and privacy statutes.

Next, let’s talk about malfeasance. Officers are known to commit criminal acts, knowing that their profession lets them get away with it. When things come to trial, often the ‘good conduct’ of an officer is cited as a mitigating factor. However, in a job, that allows powers beyond those available to the citizenry, the fact you’ve done it for years without a problem isn’t a factor. What is a factor is the extreme breach of the public trust placed in you when you took your place in that job. To quote Spiderman, “With great power, comes great responsibility”.

CHANGE – Where an officer of the law (which includes prison guards, and judges) commit a crime on duty, or use their position to influence things or ‘get out’ of punishments (such as an off-duty LEO flashing a badge to get out of a speeding ticket), then the crime is modified to be one committed ‘under colour of authority‘. A modification of minimum and maximum sentencing guidelines to take into account the breach of public trust, by abusing their position for crimes committed “under colour of authority”. I would suggest a 50% increase in both.

Weapons are the main difference between law enforcement and civilians. In countries like the UK, they’re the only ones armed legally. But on top of firearms, you have other weapons that are prohibited from civilian use/possession or are under extremely strict regulation. That’s everything from Pepper/CS/PAVA spray, through batons (side-handle, extendable/ASP and traditional truncheons/billyclubs) electro-stun (including tazer), less lethal rounds, and vehicles. Then there’s the radio, which can call another dozen or more officers, also similarly armed, all amped up and ready to go because of what they’ve been told.

Often these are used to threaten, or otherwise in accordance with their legal, intended use. Of course the textbook is again, Lt. Pike with the pepper spray, there was also the Oakland occupy incident shortly before that, where a protester was targeted and struck in the head with a beanbag round; the punishment? A year later, he might lose his job. No criminal charges, no loss of pay, just the job, a year later. Meanwhile a similar attack on a police officer is considered so serious, a Congressional Bill has just been submitted concerning ‘Blue Alerts’ when an officer is seriously injured or killed. It’s hypocrisy of the highest order.

There are amazing numbers of cases each year of excessive force, and the growing trend now is to use Tasers to bring events to a swift conclusion with the officer in control. In one 2005 incident, a man was tasered over 30 times, according to news reports. No disciplinary action was taken, and it took months to even get his effects.

2005, when they were still being introduced to law enforcement at large, was a bad year for taser-victims, but not cops. In a California case, Bryan v. McPhearson, the court decided the officer’s actions qualified under the doctrine of qualified immunity (cops will only be responsible for excessive force if they act in a way that is so unreasonable any cop would have known such conduct was against the law – basically acting criminally) Since ‘the law on taser police brutality’ was still evolving when the incident happened in 2005 the cop should get a break from liability. You read that right, because no-one had told the cop, he didn’t have any notion of right and wrong. Ignorance is an excuse, if you wear the badge.

It’s this that characterizes many police brutality and excessive force cases. On one hand the police officers are professionals dedicated to knowing and enforcing the law, when they’re on the prosecuting side, their word is solid and their testimony is unquestionable. However if they’re a defendant, they’re amateurs who don’t know the law, can’t tell right from wrong, and whose training and instincts are so poor, that they can’t be held responsible for decisions made when doing their job because they have to do them quickly.

CHANGE – Convictions of violence/brutality/excessive force under colour of authority are to be treated as the serious violent criminal acts they are. If the act was not reactive, and especially if prolonged, or needlessly escalated (When you use a weapon before a less confrontational method for instance, or a weapon deliberately misused) then it should be considered a murder/attempted murder case (depending on the status of their victim). Likewise any deaths in custody are to be considered suspicious at all times.

Next, investigations into acts called into question are often done informally, and internally. There are ‘nod-and-wink’ investigations where a semblance of scrutiny is given, but in reality it’s a smokescreen. Meanwhile colleagues tend to close ranks, resorting to the omerta typified by the Mafia, better known as “no snitching”. This is an attempt to subvert the law, by denying evidence. The intent is often portrayed as one of ‘trust’ (as in ‘I trust he has my back by covering up’) with the result that evidence is suppressed, or made contested.

CHANGE – All investigations are to be meticulously detailed, such that another investigator, even from across the country, can follow-up on the investigation if needed. Failure to do so would leave the investigator likewise subject to investigation for their actions. Officers attempting to lie, cover up, or obstruct the investigation to be charged as co-conspirators in the crime, in addition to the relevant charges for obstruction/perverting of justice, and dealt with as above.

Once under investigation and where it looks to succeed, many officers elect to retire, or resign, to avoid, or reduce punishment. While the decision to resign is certainly their prerogative, it should not be construed as an alternative to investigation and punishment. At no other area do you get to walk away from crimes by quitting. If you work at a regular company, and get caught stealing, you don’t say ‘well, you don’t need to charge me, I’ll quit’ (unless you’re the CEO, but that’s a whole other topic) yet in both the justice field, and politics, it’s considered acceptable, and sometimes ‘noble’.

CHANGE – No retirements permitted while under investigation; would have to wait until exonerated. Resignations are acceptable, but it in no way affects the course of the investigation. No investigation is to stop because the person or persons investigated have left their position. If the investigation is substantiated, then the penalties are the same as if they were still employed, because the later state of (non)employment has no bearing on the actions while employed.

Finally, some people get in trouble, get out of the job, and then come back. This has happened with police officers (the officer in the Tomlinson case was involved in a violent incident in the 90s, quit, joined a different police force years later and then transferred back to London) but is also common with politicians (See Silvio Berlusconi). Diseased limbs aren’t given back to patients or left in the open. Once they’re removed they are then destroyed. That way reinfection is minimised. At the same way, a stigma must be placed on these actions, and people MUST be aware of their level of untrustworthiness, and that they have abuse a public position.

CHANGE – Investigations and their documentation (see above) are to be recorded. Any person with a ‘colour of authority’ conviction is disqualified from any position of public authority.
OPTION: A register of, let’s just say ‘Corruption’ (while the term isn’t accurate, neither is the term ‘sex offender register’ when a significant number of actions that get people on it are not sexual in nature) which are public record.

What we have here are a number of measures that basically enhance the requirements to investigate criminal acts by those in a position of responsibility; politicians as well as law enforcement and the judiciary. The problem of corruption, not just financial corruption but moral and authoritarian corruption is becoming endemic.

These solutions are not overly radical; they amount to treating abuse of public office as being serious crimes in themselves, on top of the crimes committed. Some might say it’ll lead to officers and politicians second-guessing themselves, but they’re not being asked to follow new laws, just the same as everyone else. No police officer will let someone off a crime because ‘they were under pressure’. “I’m sorry I beat him with a big stick but I was under pressure and it was a split second decision” will get you off only if you’re a police officer.

If it makes people stop and consider their actions first, that’s all to the good. In exchange for the power they’ve been given, they also have to accept the consequences, and enhanced punishments when they’re caught doing wrong is one of them. You can hand out punishments, but don’t want them imposed on you? Tough, find a different career.

The intent is deterrence. When you can get away with a crime, knowing that any investigation won’t do much, you’ll be getting full pay for it, and that your buddies will back your version; there’s no incentive to behave within the law. When those tasked to implement or uphold the law have contempt for it, what chance do ordinary people have?

It is time to make it clear that corruption, malfeasance, bullying and swaggering arrogance is no longer acceptable.

While many officers (and politicians) won’t like these kinds of rules and claim it hampers their ability to work because they’re afraid of the consequences, that’s exactly what it’s like for ordinary people, day in, day out. And we’ve now seen the kind of behaviour not having these rules has engendered. There’s a lack of respect for police officers now, and for politicians, and it’s because the rules don’t seem to apply to them anymore. It’s time to change that. If you’re good, and honourable, and follow the law, you’ve nothing to fear. After all, you willingly took on the added abilities, now you get the added punishments if you abuse them. That’s only fair.

Meanwhile, this won’t magically restore the public trust in politicians and law enforcement, but it will address one of the biggest problems that has eroded it. Decades (centuries in some places) of abuse can’t be ignored overnight, but by taking responsibility and ‘cleaning house’, it can happen.


  1. Fredrik

    Sounds like a good plan. Let’s get it done!

    Btw, the “2005 incident” sentence is duplicated. You’ll want to fix that.

    1. Andrew Norton

      I see that. Thanks I’ve fixed it now. Missed deleting it when I reordered the paragraphs. That’s what 11pm editing will do to you!

  2. Anonymous

    neither are in the least bit interested in that at all. the politicians are only interested in keeping control. to aid in that, they can receive enormous ‘encouragement’ from industries that want something in return for backing the politicians. the police are not interested because they are only following, blindly, what orders they get from politicians. the bottom of the pile are the people, you know, the ones that EVERYONE rely on but no one gives a shit about!

  3. Caleb Lanik

    I absolutely love the picture at the top. Did you take it yourself, or find it online? Either way, poignant and well made.

    1. Andrew Norton

      If you hover over it, you’ll see it’s a CC-BY image from flickr. The source URL is

  4. Ano Nymous

    I agree on most of this, however having public registers of criminals – sex offenders as well as criminals under color of authority – is plain wrong. When the sentence is served, one is supposed to be free again.

    Also, you have a part of the text that appears twice.

    1. Andrew Norton

      The duplication (as I noted in 1.1) has now been fixed. Thanks!

      The register is not going to go away for ‘sex offenders’ any time soon. The way it’s been sold to the public as ‘being in the public interest’ means it’s perception is near bulletproof (it’s one of those ‘seen to be doing something’ rather than ‘doing something effective’ pieces of legislation, a lot like the TSA)

      However, by tying public corruption and lawbreaking under colour of authority to it, we can certainly dampen the ardor of politicians to expand it, or even really care about it. And maybe show that the idea isn’t exactly that good in general. After all, most sex offenders offend within the family circle – a register is not much use. However, public corruption/abuse of position by definition happens to the public at large, and thus a register is actually more appropriate. And frankly, if you want to be rid of registers, making them apply to those that instigate them and enforce them is going to be the only way to have it done.

      1. Ano Nymous

        That it isn’t going to go away soon doesn’t make it right. And, it doesn’t exist in Sweden, where I live. I don’t want it to come here, and if no one critisizes it most certainly will, because there are people who wants it.

        And why wouldn’t current politicians expand it if we magically could make it cover those things? They will want to expand it to cover crimes usually only commited by the public, such as terrorism, murder, stealing, and most of all – saying the “wrong” things. They won’t expand it to cover more crimes mostly commited within “the system”, such as bribes, election fraud, and lying to the people (which propably isn’t even a crime).

  5. Colin

    What you say is all true and I would love to see your ideas enshrined in law, enforced honestly by a near incorruptible police force.
    Trouble is, we’re up against the question of who will guard the guardians. I don’t see any politician or policeman being in favour of having to be honest and accountable.
    Do you have any thoughts of how to address this extremely serious barrier to success?

  6. Neverhood

    Couldn’t agree more. Very well thought out and articulated.

  7. shadowreports postings of none

    Since 1979 the Dupage and Cook County IL police are covering up a large confidential mass murder site now known as Deep Quarry in Dupage County. I am a witness who was being stonewalled for over 2-1/2 years. I discovered the cleanup and exposed some of it 6 months ago. My investigation pointed to John Wayne Gacy being secretly blamed for the entire site but the police were only partly right. I have no idea what the police are now doing, if anything. The politicians who screwed up are some of the biggest names in politics, so big that the current police may wind up still covering for them. The murderers who were accidently let off the hook in 1979 are some of the worse mass murderers in history. I am anonymously reporting my progress on as postings (the postings of “none”) It is a true story but very few people are passing it on. It is simply to impossible to believe that Illinois would do such a thing, but they did. The police know who I am.

  8. iko

    I think the problem the police covering for eachother needs to be taken one step further, in that it should be legally required for anyone working in the police (officers and civilians alike) to report any suspected wrongdoing to an overseeing body. Something similar to the Swedish Lex Maria and Lex Sarah laws requiring heath and social care workers to report mistakes and neglect to the board of health. Neglecting to report should be punishable.

  9. Ian Farquhar

    An additional proposal:

    Both during the training and at regular times during the officer’s job, the officer (judge/prison officer) should be screened for:

    – Antisocial Personality Disorder
    – Histrionic Personality Disorder
    – Narcissistic Personality Disorder

    (Note: APD is otherwise known as sociopathy or psychopathy, although strictly speaking, the terms aren’t exact synonyms.)

    If detected during screening prior to employment, any employment of this person in a position of trust should be denied.

    If detected in a serving officer, that person should be retired immediately.

    These conditions, for which there is absolutely no credible evidence of treatability (indeed, all evidence suggests that training simply leads to someone who can fake normality better), are highly correlated with violent and aggressive behavior.

    For a justification of why I am taking what may seem like an extreme position, consider the diagnostic criteria for APD (from Wikipedia):

    A) There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three or more of the following:
    failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
    deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
    impulsivity or failure to plan ahead;
    irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
    reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
    consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
    lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another;
    B) The individual is at least age 18 years.
    C) There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.
    D) The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.

    I challenge ANYONE here to justify that the above represents someone who should be trusted with any form of authority whatsoever.

    Note also that at least in the US, psychiatric evidence can result in much harsher sentences (because the person is a danger to the community). I fail to see, on that basis, why we should not pre-screen the same condition out of law enforcement officers.

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