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America Has a Secret Police Problem

There’s a lot you don’t know about what the cops on your streets are doing—and they aim to keep it that way.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Members of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and other law enforcement patrol the streets of Washington, D.C., as protests over the death of George Floyd continue.

Earlier this month, I spent a Wednesday afternoon walking through downtown Washington, D.C., to see the aftermath of the recent protests and riots. Federal police had used force to clear peaceful demonstrators out of Lafayette Park next to the White House, to the nation’s stunned horror, only two days earlier. After two-and-a-half months in which the coronavirus pandemic had largely kept me confined to my apartment, it was a surreal experience: What had been a bustling city center before the lockdowns in March was now largely deserted, save for the occasional clusters of protesters and police.

As I made my way east from the White House, I struck up conversations with members of both groups. Many were cordial, including an Indiana National Guard squad on Pennsylvania Avenue and the uniformed police outside the Justice Department’s main headquarters. Then I came across a group of armed men standing outside a hotel near Union Station. They were gathered around buses, apparently waiting to be deployed to parts unknown. Each of them wore riot gear—helmets, batons, body armor, the works—and carried rifles. The only patches or identifying insignia that some of them wore said “DCT.”

There had been reports that Attorney General Bill Barr had deployed Bureau of Prisons personnel to the city, so I wondered if DCT meant Disturbance Control Team, the agency’s riot-control unit. Standing a safe distance away, I asked if they were affiliated with BOP. The nearest officer turned and looked, so I repeated my question. “Are you guys Bureau of Prisons?” I asked. “Maybe,” he replied indifferently. As he answered, one of the other men—a supervisor, I assume, since he wasn’t clad in full riot gear or wearing a mask—approached me and only stopped within inches of my face.

I backed away slightly to maintain social distancing, suddenly very cognizant of the Covid-19 outbreaks spreading through federal prisons. He asked who I was, voice raised for no apparent reason. I replied that I was a reporter with The New Republic, hoping that would defuse his concerns. It did not. He continued to try to loom over me, advancing even as I kept moving back. “Where’s your press pass?” he snarled. I figured I wouldn’t need it in broad daylight in the nation’s capital, so I’d left it at home. “Then how do I know you are who you say you are?” he replied with a sneer. Not wanting to risk violence or a coronavirus infection over the matter, I turned and left. They never answered my question.

It was, all things considered, a trivial encounter. But in the days that followed, I thought about how it could’ve become much worse. If that officer had attacked me—a common enough sight in major cities over the past month—without actually arresting me, what recourse would I have had? I had no clear way to identify him or even confirm where he worked. My best guess was an educated one that the average person might not have been able to make. Barr’s “little green men” were effectively unaccountable and perhaps the closest this country has come to secret police since the post-Watergate reforms of the FBI in the 1970s.

Americans in other cities faced similar experiences over the past few weeks. In New York City, protesters and journalists noted that many NYPD officers had placed black bands of mourning around their badges, which conveniently obscured their badge numbers. NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea had announced in April that officers would be wearing the black bands in memory of the NYPD officers who had died of Covid-19. But as The Intercept reported earlier this month, the department’s policies forbid officers from using them or other means to hide their numbers, thereby making it far harder to discern who is responsible for misconduct and abuse.

A certain amount of secrecy in law enforcement is expected when conducting investigations. It can even help protect Americans’ rights instead of violate them. Thanks to police unions and friendly legislators, however, it’s all too often a means to provide impunity. ProPublica’s Eric Umansky recently wrote about how he witnessed an unmarked NYPD car roll up into his Brooklyn neighborhood, where it hit a black teenager; the officers involved in the collision then jumped out to question and arrest a nearby group of black kids for no apparent reason. Umansky, in an attempt to report out the incident, kept in touch with the families of the kids involved in the incident as they entered a labyrinth of silence. The NYPD released their children without paperwork or the names of the officers involved and ignored Umansky’s requests for clarification about what happened. While the city has a civilian oversight board, the department controls its access to body-cam footage and certain records.

New York took one recent step toward reform by repealing a state law known as 50-a, which shielded police misconduct records from the public. Similar measures exist in jurisdictions across the United States. Chicago’s police union contracts, for example, include language that require the department to destroy police disciplinary records after five years. The Chicago Police Department duly complied until federal judges began halting the practice in 1991 because of litigation. A Justice Department report in 2017 found that the CPD’s policy “not only may impair the investigation of older misconduct, but also deprives CPD of important discipline and personnel documentation that will assist in monitoring historical patterns of misconduct.” Earlier this month, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected a bid by the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police to enforce the provision. Police unions in other cities often negotiate similar provisions, which can make it impossible to establish individual misconduct rates or citywide trends. (Chicago’s police, by the way, famously operated an off-the-books interrogation black site that was finally exposed by The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman in 2015.)

Sometimes police secrecy manifests itself in more subtle ways. At the federal level, the FBI compiles the nation’s crime rates from data provided by roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country. The Bureau of Justice Statistics tracks a variety of other metrics about the criminal justice system: the demographics of America’s incarcerated population, rates of prison rape, deaths of law enforcement officers, and so on. But other important numbers simply aren’t tracked. There are no official statistics for fatal police shootings, for example, although The Washington Post has maintained a log since 2015. Centralized federal databases on use-of-force data, officer disciplinary reports, and other valuable information simply don’t exist.

What happens without that information? Earlier this week, The New York Times reported on how one New Jersey police officer, 31-year-old Ryan Dubiel, had worked for nine different police departments in the state, racking up complaints and concerns from superior officers, before he was arrested this month for pepper-spraying a group of black bystanders in the township of Woodlynne without justification. In other instances, the outcome can be even more tragic. Timothy Loehmann, the former Cleveland officer who killed Tamir Rice in 2014, had previously quit another department after superiors there raised concerns about him. After Cleveland fired him in 2017, a small Ohio town hired him as a part-time officer in 2018, only to reverse course after public outrage.

Transparency isn’t a cure-all—and in some cases it isn’t even a cure at all. Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer charged with murdering George Floyd, received at least 17 misconduct complaints over the course of his career and suffered no apparent consequences for them. City leaders are now moving toward disbanding the police department altogether. While polls show that a majority of Americans aren’t willing to go quite that far, there’s a clear appetite for broader systemic reforms to American policing. Shedding more sunlight on police departments and their practices is a very good place to start. If not, police secrecy could risk turning our law enforcement agencies into the secret police that Americans rightly fear and despise in other countries.