What are the major systems that protect bad cops and hinder reform? (Hint: it’s a lot more than just qualified immunity)

Today I wanted to break down the FIVE MAIN SYSTEMS that protect bad cops.

Note: in doing my research I discovered a journalist who is the expert’s expert on the subject. Her name is Shaila Dewan, and she is National Criminal Justice Editor at the New York Times. Dewan has been featured on, and collaborated with, PBS Frontline on several episodes, she has testified before Congress, and the depth and breath of her work on a the real life, gritty topics of the criminal justice system is just overwhelming. Then I happened to see that she was on Tuesday’s episode of “The Daily” podcast, and I was thrilled. She did a great job there in explaining the obstacles to holding police accountable, and she expands on it in her recent article: Thousands of Complaints Do Little to Change Police Ways.

Here’s what I learned.


First, before I get to the broader, systemic problem of holding police accountable in general, I wanted to take a quick second to look at what we know about the cop at the center of this nationwide uprising.

What do we know about the nineteen year career of Derrick Chauvin, the officer charged with the murder of George Floyd?

  • Derrick Chauvin had at least seventeen complaints in nineteen years, and although the specifics of the complaints are masked in the Minneapolis’ database, through a patchwork of other methods, we know some specifics.
    • Chauvin was the subject of one brutality complaint and was involved in three shootings.
    • He was never suspended. He was never placed on leave, paid or otherwise.
    • The totality of his discipline added up to two letters of reprimand in his file and one verbal reprimand for “using derogatory language in a demeaning tone.”

This leads to another question: Why is it so difficult to find out if a police officer has a history of violence against citizens?


Police chiefs often come in wanting to reform their departments. The current Minneapolis Chief of Police actually once sued the department he now runs. So what is stopping Police Chiefs from disciplining bad cops and instituting the reforms they want to enact?

  • Almost all police departments set up walls of secrecy around complaints against officers.
  • Some departments only keep complaints a limited period of time, and in many departments complaints are completely kept from public view. In these cases to find out an officer’s history one must search for civil lawsuits and comb news accounts to discover anything at all about a police officer’s past.
  • Minneapolis is rare in that they have a searchable online database where the public can see the number of complaints against police officers.
    • But even the Minneapolis database does not reveal what the complaints against an officer are, only the number of complaints. So there could be seventeen complaints of “using derogatory language” or seventeen complaints of beating up handcuffed suspects. There’s no way to tell just from the database.

So, finally: what are the FIVE MAIN SYSTEMS that protect bad cops?


SYSTEM NUMBER ONE: Police are often policing themselves

  • Internal Affairs Divisions are part of the department, and they tend to be charitable toward their own.
    • Example: In Minneapolis in 2010 an officer held a man down with his knee on his neck for over four minutes, killing him. After an IAD investigation, not only were the officers not disciplined, but the Police Chief even praised them.

SYSTEM NUMBER TWO: Civil Service Protections

  • Civil Service Protections give police officers the ability to appeal punishments or firings to an “independent body”
    • According to a study done by The Pioneer Press, the Minnesota Board reinstated law enforcement officers 46% of the time. One of the reasons is because they say that prior examples of an officer doing the same thing didn’t lead to punishment. So if cops got away with it before, they’re more likely to get away with it in the future.

SYSTEM NUMBER THREE: Civilian Review Boards have little to no power

  • While many cities now have Civilian Review Boards with the power to call witnesses and review evidence, they can usually only make recommendations, which are almost always overruled or just ignored.

SYSTEM NUMBER FOUR: The power of police unions

  • Most experts say that police unions are the single biggest impediment – in all jurisdictions to police reform
    • The mission of the police union is to protect police jobs at all costs. They’re usually led by old-school types who are often the biggest opponents to any accountability. In Minneapolis, the Police Union president, Bob Kroll, is a very controversial figure. He is already vowing to fight to get the 4 officers involved in the death of George Floyd reinstated, and he, himself, has had 29 complaints against him as a cop. Blamed by the last Chief of Police for being the major obstacle to reform, he is a Trump booster and is loudly and proudly one of the biggest opponents to cleaning up the department.

SYSTEM NUMBER FIVE: the doctrine of “reasonable fear”

  • The doctrine of “Reasonable Fear” is a legal concept that makes holding police criminally accountable for their actions exceedingly difficult
  • What the doctrine means in practice is that if an officer can make an argument that a reasonable officer would have been afraid for their life or the life of a fellow officer in that moment, then the jury must acquit the officer.
    • That’s just a very high bar, even once you can find a prosecutor willing to prosecute what most consider “one of their own.

These are the five main structural impediments to changing the behavior of police departments generally and bad cops specifically.

It’s just so hard to discipline cops, and they know it. So they have very little reason to change. Especially when police culture, itself, protects bad behavior.


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