If approved by the Pittsburgh city council, a new policy would increase police accountability without hampering cops’ ability to enforce the law, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Editorial Board. Council member Rev. Ricky Burgess’s so-called “stop-and-frisk” legislation requires police to justify and document warrantless pedestrian stops.
Two of the great enemies of justice and institutional health are arbitrariness, which refers to performing actions for no good reason, and impunity, which refers to knowing that one will not be held accountable for those actions. When police officers don’t have to justify or document pedestrian stops, that increases the temptation for them to use those stops to intimidate and hassle, rather than to protect and serve, the public.
Even the appearance of arbitrariness and impunity in law enforcement destroys public trust. Citizens begin to believe that police aren’t bound by the laws they swear to uphold and will not be held accountable. To the extent this is true, the police themselves can develop an “anything goes” mentality. The ends always justify the means and some people’s safety is expendable in the service of some alleged greater good.
Mr. Burgess’s bill would not ban warrantless stops or otherwise restrict the ability of police to make them. Rather, it installs procedures to protect against arbitrariness and impunity. The ordinance would require officers to do two simple things to document a discretionary pedestrian stop: call in to dispatch before the stop and use a dashboard or body camera during the stop.
This ensures institutional accountability, but the bill would also increase personal accountability to the public: Unless safety or confidentiality require discretion, officers must give civilians paper documentation of the reason they stopped them if the stop doesn’t result in an arrest.
Some people, including some police officers, may object that city council is hamstringing law enforcement, but that’s bunk. The ordinance would merely introduce safeguards that will reassure the public that the police are actually following the law. The simple procedures the new policy would require would also protect the officers themselves from false charges of intimidation or abuse. And if exigent circumstances — such as a violent crime in progress — demand immediate action, these procedures won’t apply.
If officers resist the idea of having to account for the reasonableness and legality of their actions, that’s a red flag about the officers, not Mr. Burgess’s proposal.
Warrantless pedestrian stops may be an important part of law enforcement, but without proper controls they can be easily abused — and not just by abusive cops but by cops trying to do their best in a difficult job. That damages the public trust that’s essential to doing their job right. Mr. Burgess’s ordinance would allow police to continue enforcing the law effectively, while remaining within the law themselves.
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