Policing is an inherently noble profession. Your career, if you are a good cop, is to help keep people safe from violence—the most central function of proper government.
But when “we”—society at large, voters, city officials, chiefs and other administrators in police departments, prosecutors, police unions, individual officers—allow some people with badges to become the perpetrators of violence rather than the defense against it, police departments violate people’s rights and corrode civil society.
When police departments tolerate corruption, fewer decent people decide to become cops. We can reasonably predict that, at least within some departments, an officer who diligently reported wrongdoing by fellow officers would suffer retribution.
Corruption drives some people in the community to be suspicious of police and to decline to call police to handle violence and thefts in the neighborhood. No decent person wants the guilt of calling in the police if they are going to needlessly escalate the situation to brutalize or kill someone.
Corruption within police departments drives some people to despair. Following the police murder of George Floyd, some people called to “defund the police” or to “abolish” police entirely. After I posted to social media notes about a jaw-dropping new article from Susan Greene and Andrew Fraieli about failures to hold “rogue cops” in Colorado accountable, some people took this as evidence that policing is fundamentally broken and cannot be fixed. “Reforms don’t work,” one person reacted. “Police protect their own no matter how awful they are,” said another.
When people in the community give up on police and police give up on themselves, we become locked in a dangerous dynamic in which too few make a serious effort to align policing with its noble purpose. But we must not give up! Not if we want to live in a safe and decent society. We need to keep pushing forward with the reforms necessary to ensure that every police officer is a decent person who can be consistently proud of the actions taken by his or her department and colleagues. Individual officers and individuals within the community deserve as much.
The need for accountability
The article by Greene and Fraieli opens: “A Denver Police officer bragged to coworkers that he shot a carjacking suspect once in the head to kill him, then at least 16 times more to see his ‘face fall apart.’ They told investigators that he spent months trumpeting his second on-duty killing and saying he was eager for a third.
“Shane Madrigal [the officer in question] resigned in 2022 while under investigation for what his supervisors deemed racist, homophobic and ‘grossly inappropriate’ comments about killing people while he was on duty. Yet the man colleagues say has ‘zero regard for human life’ still has a clean disciplinary record with the Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) board, the state agency responsible for regulating police. In the eyes of the law, Madrigal—who denied any wrongdoing—remains qualified to keep serving in law enforcement.”
Obviously something has gone dreadfully wrong with policing in Colorado.
The journalists, who collaborated with other reporters in Colorado, summarize: “We found that cops involved in some of Colorado’s most-high profile misconduct cases—including Elijah McClain’s 2019 killing in Aurora—show up, falsely, in the state’s new police database with clean disciplinary records. We identified several who continued breaking policies and laws as they’ve been able to bounce from police job to police job. And only after we started asking questions about certain officers whose departments had reported their misconduct months earlier did the state take away their right to carry a badge in Colorado.”
Police are supposed to be held to a higher standard, yet we routinely hold them to a lower one, letting them get away with petty abuses and even violent crimes that would land any regular person behind bars.
Read the entire report for details about an officer, “still POST certified,” who “took part in killing an unarmed man . . . with three bullets to the back,” leading to a $9.5 million civil settlement and a prison term for attempted manslaughter. Or the officer now working for the Garden City Police Department after “he kneed and choked a suspect,” then pleaded “guilty to reckless endangerment.” Or the officer who “got drunk and pressed an AK-style weapon into his neighbor’s chest” but who still “has a clean disciplinary record on the state database.”
Do not accept this as normal! The many decent police officers in Colorado deserve much better than to be tainted by association with such horrific corruption by their colleagues.
Other needed reforms
Expeditiously firing bad cops should be the minimum standard. And badness in this context extends well beyond criminal offenses. We deserve more than for police officers merely to not be criminals with badges; we deserve to have police officers who treat others in the community with decency and respect.
In reaction to the report, the Aurora Sentinel editorialized, “Calling Black people ‘porch monkeys,’ pistol whipping harmless suspects and stealing from fellow officers aren’t mistakes. They’re crimes. And criminals in police uniforms carrying guns is dangerous and unacceptable.”
That’s not quite right: Calling someone a “porch monkey” is not a crime, but it should be a fireable offense for a police officer, who is after all charged with equally protecting everyone within the community. It should go without saying that any officer convicted of any crime of violence or theft should never work for any police department ever again.
One thing we need to clean up in Colorado is the practice of asset forfeiture, which in practice often entails police outright stealing people’s cash and property. In many cases this is, bluntly, legalized theft. And yet, shockingly, some people pretend that it is not obvious that police departments ought not act as organized theft rings. The Institute for Justice, which takes many asset forfeiture cases to court around the country, gives Colorado a “C” for our forfeiture laws. Legislators have put in a few stop-gap reforms, but it is past time for lawmakers to decisively end abuses in this area.
Prosecutors also need to get serious about prosecuting officers for crimes they commit. Here is my message to prosecutors: If you decline to prosecute a police officer for some offense for which you would prosecute any other person, you are a horrible person and an affront to justice and you should hang your head in shame and resign.
As I have observed, police had no legal right to detain Elijah McClain, much less to assault and kill him. Yet officers involved have not been fully prosecuted for their crimes. As the Denver Post relates, “Suspended Aurora police Officer Nathan Woodyard, 34, is charged with reckless manslaughter and a lesser included count of criminally negligent homicide in the 2019 death.” But Woodyard “performed a carotid hold on McClain”—where are the charges for that violent assault?
As I have repeatedly pointed out, prosecutors have a built-in bias against prosecuting police officers for crimes they commit, as prosecutors work intimately with, and rely deeply upon, local police to make their cases. I have suggested that we might need an independent office to handle criminal prosecutions of police officers. I have yet to hear a better idea.
I have hardly exhausted the list of reasonable police reforms. But a good start would be to stop cops from stealing people’s stuff under color of law, prosecute officers for violent crimes that they commit, and ensure that abusive cops never again work as police officers. We, the people of Colorado, deserve that much at least. And among the first to benefit will be the many decent police officers working tirelessly around the state to help keep people safe.
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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