“Dial 911 and die” now has two distinct meanings. Originally, it meant that, if someone seeks to break in to your home to do you harm, the police probably won’t get there in time to help you. For a few terrifying moments one early morning a few months ago I thought someone was trying to break through my door. I called Westminster police and waited, and waited, and waited some more. It turned out to be some drunk guy at the wrong house. But the incident impressed upon me that police response times can be very long, even in the suburbs, never mind the sticks.
Increasingly, “dial 911 and die” carries a second meaning. If you call 911 asking for help, sometimes—rarely, but still too often—police will arrive and kill you themselves. The Washington Post found “178 cases from 2019 to 2021 in which calls for help resulted in law enforcement officers shooting and killing the very people they were called on to assist.” Often third parties made these calls. Often the killings were justified or excusable at least from the standpoint of criminal law. But surely even staunch law-and-order conservatives can muster a raised eyebrow at such reports.
A partly-overlapping problem is that sometimes police officers commit crimes while wearing the badge. For example, a former Loveland officer was sentenced for assault for roughing up an elderly woman with dementia. A grand jury “filed a total of 32 criminal charges against three Aurora Police officers and two paramedics” involved in the death of Elijah McClain, CPR summarized. That case is ongoing. From early on I thought that at least the officers involved acted criminally.
In those high-profile cases, police officers were criminally prosecuted. But it’s reasonable to think that often police are not held to the same legal standards that others are held to. Indeed, probably most of the time that officers commit violent crimes, they are not held accountable.
I explain my concerns in a query I sent to the governor, the attorney general, and their Republican opponents for those offices:
“Who should be responsible for investigating allegations of crimes committed by police officers, and for prosecuting such crimes when warranted? Usually district attorneys are responsible for that. But people who work in DAs offices work very closely with police officers on a daily basis and often know many local officers personally. The work of a DA’s office depends radically on the cooperation of local police.
“Hence, we should expect that DAs and their employees often (or even systematically) are biased against holding police officers to the same legal standards to which they hold everyone else. What is the proper solution for this problem? What do you think of the idea of creating a permanent, independent office, presumably staffed with lawyers appointed by the governor, attorney general, and legislature, to handle such investigations and prosecutions?”
None of the politicians replied, which I guess doesn’t surprise me given that taking a stand on this issue would require some courage.
When I wrote about this issue last year, I suggested “that all criminal investigations of police actions automatically go to a new semi-autonomous office devoted to such cases under the Attorney General.” But the AG’s office is a political one, so I now think probably the better way to go is to create an independent office with appointed staff. Of course there’s no way to totally escape the pull of partisan politics, but I think an independent office probably stands the best chance of achieving just outcomes.
If you’ve been following the news, you know why I opened with a discussion of 911 calls. After Christian Glass crashed his car and called for help, “officers and deputies in Clear Creek County” aggressively approached Glass, and a deputy shot him dead, the Denver Post reports.
If you have the stomach for it, you can watch the body camera video of the killing. Here’s how I see it. Glass clearly was “off” somehow. He seemed to be paranoid that the police were out to get him—which is devastatingly ironic. In a craven act of sociopathic cruelty, officers violently and needlessly assaulted the man. They smashed out his car window, shot him with beanbags, and tazed him.
Terrified and brutalized, Glass, still sitting in the front seat of his car, held a knife and writhed around in a pointless attempt at self-defense. Rather than just back away to a safe distance, officers instead pressed forward. One deputy, as he stood directly over the man on the hood of his car, shot five rounds at the man, killing him. I don’t see how any reasonable person could watch that video and conclude anything other than that multiple officers violently assaulted the man and that a deputy murdered him.
Perhaps eventually a jury will hear the evidence and decide whether any of the officers involved committed any crimes. The Fifth Judicial District’s elected DA, Heidi McCollum, is reviewing the evidence. If any regular person had done to Glass what the officers did, the perpetrator would have been immediately arrested and promptly charged. In cases such as this, seared in the national spotlight, district attorneys are more likely to eventually overcome any biases they might have and lodge appropriate charges against police officers. The cases that you don’t hear about worry me more.
In the McClain case, the district attorney obviously failed to do his job, so, in a necessarily political move, the governor kicked the case to the attorney general. The system we have to deal with alleged crimes by law officers does work sometimes, but it is woefully inadequate. We need the legislature to create an independent office to carry the responsibility.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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