Scott Johnson

Recently, I have been giving much thought to police misconduct, reform legislation, training and our criminal justice system. How do people that should never be police officers end up on our streets? How do we access more police training in Northern Minnesota when just about all of it is held in the Twin Cities Metro area? Should we have one system for all but a different system for police officers? Should police officers who have been given much authority be held to a different level of accountability than others or should all citizens be held accountable for their actions through the same criminal justice system? Should the criminal justice system be changed? If so, how and what would it look like?

I think our public debate centers around three themes.

Public Trust: The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police existence, actions, behavior and the ability of the police to secure and maintain public respect.

Use of Force: The degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes, proportionately, to the necessity for the use of physical force and compulsion in achieving police objectives.

De-Escalation: The police should use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the laws or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to achieve police objectives; and police should use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

Of course, police officers must always earn the public’s respect and trust. For example, if there is a perceived conflict of interest in the investigation of an alleged crime, the police typically ask another law enforcement agency to conduct the investigation. This is about trust. It is what happens in officer-involved shootings. We ask the Minnesota Bureau of Investigation to conduct the investigation, document it and submit it to the county attorney. Each county has an elected county attorney whose job it is to determine if the investigation supports criminal charges and what the appropriate charges are. They then conduct the prosecution. From our experience, Itasca county attorneys are wise, professional and unbiased, looking out for the rights of all people.

On June 4, the Minnesota County Attorneys’ Association recommended that the criminal justice system be changed by mandating that the Minnesota Attorney General charge and prosecute all cases in which death occurs involving a peace officer.

As stated in their press release;

“As prosecutors, we have always handled cases involving officer-involved deaths in an unbiased manner with the utmost fairness and impartiality. We understand the seriousness and importance of these cases and, as in all cases we handle, we are bound by our ethical duty to only file criminal charges in those cases where there is a reasonable likelihood of proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury at trial. When we have had conflicts of interest in these cases and others, we have sought other county attorney offices or the Attorney General’s Office to handle the cases. While we do not believe that there is an inherent conflict of interest in reviewing officer-involved death cases occurring within our jurisdictions, we recognize that there is a growing sentiment that such a conflict of interest exists.”

The County Attorney’s Association then encouraged the Minnesota legislature to pass a bill, incorporating this into law and appropriating $1.6 million for that purpose.

The central themes of the public debate, public trust, use of force and de-escalation are not new. They are word-for-word tenants two, four and six, of the nine placed into writing in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel, the first chief of the London Metropolitan Police Department. You see, the debate we are having has been around since at least the early 1800s.

There is also Peel’s tenant number seven that states;

“The police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police are the only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the intent of the community welfare.”

This raises some questions regarding changes being proposed to our criminal justice system. If the police are members of the public, should there be two criminal justice systems, one for the public and one for the police? If the Minnesota Attorney General is competent in performing prosecutions and as stated in legislation can rely upon county attorneys to assist him, then why has he recruited four attorneys to work “pro-bono” i.e. volunteer their time, to prosecute police officers?


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