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Law Prof. Joanna Schwartz on How the Police Became Untouchable

About 20 years ago, when UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz was a civil rights attorney in New York, she worked on a large class-action lawsuit against the Department of Corrections. While interviewing officers, she learned something that shocked her. The officers had no idea how many times they'd been sued.

As it turns out, the situation was not uncommon. Oftentimes, Schwartz says, "the information from lawsuits goes back and forth from the city attorney's offices, but that information doesn't make its way over to the police department, officers and officials."

Schwartz describes "silos" that exist between police departments and the attorneys who represent offices in civil suits. She says attorneys sometimes withhold information from police departments because they're afraid that details of prior wrongdoing will create increased legal liability. Other times, the information isn't passed on because attorneys assume the details aren't valuable — "that it is just a plaintiff trying to make a buck," Schwartz says.

In her new book, Shielded: How the Police Became Untouchable, Schwartz examines the legal protections — including qualified immunity and no-knock warrants — that have protected officers from the repercussions of abuse. She makes the case that true reform will require local police departments to gather and analyze information about the lawsuits brought against them — and to assume the cost of any settlements.

Interview highlights

On the origins of policing differing by location in the U.S.

You might imagine that policing in the United States has a single origin story, but there's actually multiple origin stories based on geography. In the South, policing was really an outgrowth of slave patrols, ... immediately and initially focused on the subjugation of Black people. In the South and the Southwest, the Texas Rangers were sort of the initial police law enforcement entity, and they, in their role, ended up killing thousands of Mexicans, Mexican Americans and indigenous people. In the North, police were really modeled on the London policing apparatus, and those police officers also abused their power. But in the North, there was more focus and attention on immigrants and other members of the working class. But in each of those origin stories, subjugation and violence against disempowered groups is a constant.

On policing in the North

I think that the expectation, certainly for those who have not researched in this area, was that the South was this place of real racial misconduct, violence, horror inflicted by the Ku Klux Klan and by law enforcement, and that the North was somehow a safer, kinder place for Black people to live. And I think that was a belief that inspired the Great Migration and inspired Black Americans to move to the North. But looking at the history of policing in the 20th century in America, you come quickly to learn that police in the North had plenty of their own problems as well, and were using unconstitutional force, arresting people and assaulting people, particularly those Black Americans who came from the South to the North.

Read entire article at NPR