Excerpt from Radley Balko’s excellent series on criminal justice myths. This one hits home. So who precisely does watch the watchmen? Don’t look to law enforcement for ethical guideance:
A strong argument can be made that they’re actually held to a lower standard. Unlike any other profession in America, prosecutors and judges are protected by the doctrine of absolute immunity, which completely shields them from civil liability for the decisions they make in the course of their jobs. The courts have ruled that prosecutors can’t be sued even if they intentionally manipulate or manufacture evidence that results in the conviction of an innocent person.
Police officers and most other government officials are protected by qualified immunity, which holds that even if they violate a citizen’s rights, they can only be held liable if a reasonable person would have known their actions were illegal. And unlike private sector workers, most government employees — including police officers — are not expected to have specialized knowledge of the laws governing their professions.
Many states have also passed a “police officer’s bill of rights,” a special set of protections for officers accused of serious misconduct, including acts that could result in criminal charges. In many jurisdictions, police officers get a “cooling off period” after a shooting or allegation of excessive force. During this period, which can range from 48 hours to 10 days, the officers under investigation cannot be asked any questions about the incident. In most states, police officers also can’t be questioned about misconduct without a union representative or attorney present. If any part of the police bill of rights protocol isn’t followed, even officers who commit egregious misconduct can find themselves back on the force, often with back pay.
In most places these extra rights only pertain to internal, administrative investigations, not criminal investigations — but the internal investigations usually take place first. That means bad cops can use those protections to gain advantages not afforded to those who don’t happen to work in law enforcement.