Twenty-five years ago in May, Los Angeles was on fire. A jury had just found four LAPD officers not guilty in the beating of Rodney King, despite a video that showed the officers pummeling him with batons and kicking him in the head and body, even after he lay down on the ground. It was clear from the video they were not trying to subdue or handcuff him - they were punishing King for running from them. Instead of just arresting him and charging him with felony evading of police, the officers gave King a dose of "street justice."
Twenty-five years later, members of Congress have introduced a bill that would allow police officers to avoid responsibility when they commit acts of unlawful violence.
For many black people in Los Angeles and across the United States, the King video showed nothing new. Still, they were told to wait. Let the authorities hold these officers to account. There will be justice.
When the verdicts for acquittal came, people took to the streets, and the city burned.
Even now, as videos of police beatings and killings are commonplace thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones and security cameras, criminal prosecutions of police officers remain an ineffective tool for accountability. Recent experience in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases show how hesitant prosecutors are to file charges. While prosecutions are few and far between, convictions are extremely rare. Recent charges brought for the videotaped killings of Terrence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla. and Kelly Thomas in Fullerton, Calif., for example, ended in acquittals.
After the acquittals in the King case, Congress passed the 1994 Violent Crimes and Law Enforcement Act. The new law increased policing, but also empowered the Justice Department to investigate systemic abuses and use federal courts to implement reforms through consent decrees.
While these tools have had some success, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signaled his intent to limit or possibly discontinue their use, even attempting to back out of existing investigations. Without them, few effective legal mechanisms for police accountability and reform exist at the federal level.
At least victims of unjustified police violence can still bring civil rights lawsuits to get some measure of justice and accountability. These lawsuits for years have been the primary way for Americans to get justice when police officers violate their fundamental rights.
But now, even that method is under attack. On May 16, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Houston, introduced the "Back the Blue Act." It purports to "protect" police officers by expanding the federal death penalty and making assault on an officer a federal crime with harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences, measures whose deterrent effect is generally dubious at best.
But it also seeks to significantly limit our ability to hold officers who violate the law accountable. It would change Section 1983 of the U.S. Code, the Ku Klux Klan Act, made law in 1871 to protect former slaves from violent violations of their rights, and Section 1988, which awards attorneys' fees to encourage private lawyers to bring these cases when government officials refuse to act. The changes ensconced in the "Back the Blue Act" would allow police to beat and even kill a person who engaged in activity "related to" a felony or certain other crimes, and escape civil liability for all but out-of-pocket damages.
Under this bill, an officer could shoot a marijuana dealer dead without justification, and only be liable for the funeral expenses. The officer and police department would not be liable for emotional distress, pain and suffering, punitive damages or attorneys' fees. Officers could pepper-spray or Taser a handcuffed vandalism suspect as a form of punishment, inflicting severe pain, and expect no legal consequences unless they face a rare criminal prosecution.
If this new law is passed, police who mete out "street justice," like that inflicted on King, would be less accountable. Police departments would lose a significant financial incentive to rein in their officers.
No one should be above the law. While most police officers do their jobs bravely and properly, some abuse their authority to do violence and to violate the constitutional rights of others.
Those officers should take responsibility and pay for their actions, just as anyone else should. The "Back the Blue Act" would make that less likely, and make it harder to curb violent "street justice" from the very people we count on to uphold the law.