By Leonard G. Brown
Five years as a deputy county attorney (the title for a prosecutor in Arizona) in Coconino County, Ariz., taught me a few lessons about the criminal justice system and particularly prosecutors and police officers.
The power that one has in those positions can be intoxicating or scary, depending on your prospective. I knew police and prosecutors who celebrated their power by displaying it at every opportunity. Others were resistant to its exercise and used it only as needed.
The lessons are three: 1. Police and prosecutors are just people with all the fallibilities we all have: poor judgment, issues of self-esteem, fear. 2. With enormous power, the authority to prosecute, arrest and even (in some circumstances) take the life of another under color of law, comes great responsibility. 3. But for a well-calibrated moral compass very bad things can and will happen with that power.
The remedy to bad prosecutor and police conduct is not just education and training but a type of education and training that informs and familiarizes these professionals with the cultural, social, historic and psychological realities of the community that they are asked to protect and service.
This education and training begins with a deep understanding of the primary function of law enforcement and prosecution as a social service endeavor. The goal is to limit or eliminate the pain and suffering that give rise to criminal behavior, drug abuse, domestic violence, mental health problems and unemployment.
Police abuse and misconduct cannot continue to happen without prosecutors aiding and abetting them. Prosecutors know (or should know) what is going on in the law enforcement agencies they work with every day. They know or should know who the bad eggs are. They have a first responder responsibility to address this problem of police abuse and misconduct. The remedy for abuse and misconduct by police begins with the good officers taking a position and the prosecution being proactive, insisting on appropriate police behavior.
If you want to change the culture of your police department, begin with a clear mission as a social service agent. Social: helping to remedy the pain and suffering that give rise to criminal behavior. Service: identify and provide access to the resources needed for that mission.
Any approach to the violence we are witnessing throughout the nation has to change the police culture and the us-against-them mentality of law enforcement. The prosecutor is implicated in this endeavor. The good police are implicated in this endeavor.
The history of America – slavery, lynching, mass incarceration, disparate treatment in the criminal justice system – is implicated in this endeavor. We are all in this thing together.
Leonard G. Brown is a lawyer now living in Amherst.