John Oliver Says Police Are Being Held Accountable Even Less Than We Realize

John Oliver
As John Oliver explains, the need for real police accountability is higher than ever. YouTube

John Oliver is no stranger to law enforcement...or at least not to covering it on Last Week Tonight. Most recently, he delved into why police are so rarely held accountable for their actions, after earlier taking on civil forfeiture, police militarization, municipal violations and mandatory minimum prison sentences.

While there have been thousands of fatal police shootings since 2005, only 77 officers were charged with murder or manslaughter in that time, and only 26 were convicted. The numbers are staggering, but just as astonishing is how difficult it is to ascertain these sorts of statistics. In 2015, FBI Director James Comey spoke of the lack of information available about our police. "We don't have data," he said at an FBI oversight committee hearing. "People have data about who went to a movie last weekend or how many books were sold or how many cases of the flu walked into an emergency room, and I cannot tell you how many people were shot by police in the United States last month, last year or anything about the demographics."

Who does track statistics on police misconduct? According to Oliver, it's a researcher named Philip Stinson, who accumulated data by setting up 48 Google alerts in 2005.

Police simply aren't held accountable for their actions the way others with jobs of such high importance are scrutinized. As Oliver explained Sunday night, there are several reasons for this. One is that police misconduct is typically investigated internally, by other police officers, which could be considered something of a conflict of interest. You want examples?

The Department of Justice reported that in Cleveland, "investigators told us that they intentionally cast an officer in the best light possible when investigating the officer's use of deadly force." In Miami, an investigation took so long, "at least two…officers shot and killed a suspect while still under investigation for a previous [shooting]." In Baltimore, an officer who reported misconduct was relentlessly harassed by his fellow officers, to the point where they weren't even sending him backup when he requested it. They also left pictures of cheese on his desk and a dead rat on his windshield.

It is also remarkably easy for officers to wipe clean any evidence of previous misconduct, and to do so legally. In some precincts, records can be thrown out after a certain amount of time elapses. A Mesa, Arizona police chief even instructed his officers to "purge your files according to policy." As Oliver notes, "This seems wrong."

Basically, the system is far more insular than it should be, and it is designed to protect police officers from themselves. The justice system only bolsters their relative immunity to recourse. It is incredibly awkward for prosecutors to go after police officers, because the former usually have close relationships with the latter, relying on them to give advice and analyze evidence. If a case against an officer ever does go to trial, which is very rare, the juries are predisposed to give officers the benefit of the doubt. Despite recent events, it's difficult for anyone to override the idea that police officers are trustworthy figures on a noble pursuit to protect and serve.

Again, out of thousands of fatal police shootings, only 77 officers went to trial and only 26 were convicted.

So what can be done? Body cameras, for one. As Oliver points out, police in Rialto, California, saw complaints against officers fall 88 percent and use of force fall 60 percent after one year of using body cameras. They have been so successful, in fact, that officers in Baltimore were reluctant to hand them in after a trial run came to an end. As Oliver says, "These cops aren't M. Night Shyamalan. If they plead with you to let them have a camera again, you should give it to them."

Other options to heighten accountability that have been tested include forcing officers to file separate reports when force is used and bringing in outside prosecutors. However it's done, it is imperative that officers are held accountable for their actions. As Oliver says, "A lack of trust in police accountability leads to a lack of trust in police."