Nobody wants to be treated inappropriately as governments fight crime. As a result, law enforcement is always under the microscope.
There are three main reasons why a simple law enforcement act can be inappropriate or perceived to be inappropriate.
First, sometimes there are simply bad law enforcers. There are also bad apples in the legal profession and in every other occupation in America. The civil service systems used by most law enforcement and government offices in our country are designed to weed out poor candidates before hiring. However, if a bad actor is actually hired, that bad actor can act inappropriately or use excessive force.
Second, we citizens sometimes misunderstand the law. Traffic law is a good example. Most people properly understand that anyone can be stopped for any traffic law violation. Even a 1 mph speed violation is sufficient reason for a traveler to be stopped by police.
Some of my friends say, “Don’t violate the law, and you will not have to deal with a potentially bad police interaction.” This is not true. Law enforcement have the right to stop some vehicles that are operating 100 percent legally.
More than one legal act, viewed with at least one other legal act, that together might look suspicious to a police officer can give police sufficient grounds to stop a vehicle. The legal acts of driving at night, driving in high-crime areas and even driving below the speed limit (not holding up traffic) are each legal to do. However, if more than one of those legal acts takes place, police may be entitled to stop the vehicle anyway, if the police officer views those acts together as “suspicious.”
We should not criticize a particular law enforcement employee if he or she is doing what the law allows or calls for. Really knowing the law is a part of determining whether a public person’s conduct is improper.
Third, if a particular act is lawful, the law itself may simply be wrong. Our justice systems have systemic racism, sexism, intimidation and other biases that are so deeply embedded into them that we citizens sometimes do not recognize those biases.
Certain laws that look unbiased can actually be biased in their effects. For example, a law promoting public health to avoid lice could require all people to comb their hair every day. Initially, this appears to be unbiased, because it would apply uniformly to all people. However, people of certain ethnicities may be more likely to have hair that cannot be combed due to its texture or volume. Thus, laws can be biased in their effects.
In the context of alleged police misconduct, an unfortunate interaction with police can sometimes shine a light on laws that really need to be changed.
Some “police misconduct” is unquestionably misconduct. Other times, the problem is the legal system itself, and sometimes we misunderstand the law. Analyzing conduct in the context of the law is the best way to identify problems to eliminate them.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 419-523-5523. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.