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Gerald G. Doane: A check on power and authority

Other Voices
Gerald G. Doane

Death or serious bodily injury allegedly inflicted by officers on detainees who are in police custody will need a new look by state legislatures. Power and authority can be intoxicating, addicting, and corrupting. It is in the nature of mankind to seek, even obsess over it.

Our founders were very wary of power and authority when they organized the United States. Perhaps Madison’s most important goal when writing the Constitution was to create a republic where there was a check and balance on power, not only within the structure of the central government, i.e. between the three branches, but between the central government, the states, and the people.

The Constitution has worked pretty well in limiting power and authority over the past 230 years despite major challenges, the most difficult being the political fight that resulted in the Civil War.

The abuses of slavery and involuntary servitude were corrected by that terrible but necessary war, and by a process in our Constitution. But the Civil War and the Amendments that followed were not merely about ending slavery, they were also about limiting power wielded by the states.

The concentration of power is not a good thing. History is replete with examples where “ … absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Sir John Dalberg-Acton. Need I cite the horrendous examples of the last century?

Let us face it, all elements of society, the three branches of the federal government; state, county, district, and local governments; political parties; non-government organizations; corporations; businesses, associations; groups; and yes, even individuals must have reasonable and necessary limits placed upon their powers, authorities, and rights in order for a society to function. If not, we would live under a dictatorship or there would be total anarchy.

What checks power and authority? The “law” in most cases, and the “law” includes constitutions, legal codes, codes of conduct, policies, and even contracts.

I loved being a police officer. I do not know what it was, perhaps it was the uniform, or maybe it was the quasi-military structure, or perchance it was the discipline of laws that enticed me into the police service. I do know this, however; I had absolutely no desire to abuse the power and authority given to me over anyone, included my peers, members of the community, or those who had my attention because of their bad behavior.

Yes, I did use force, lots of times. In the beginning of my career I was taught to use my fists, my baton, and my feet. But I soon learned that my mouth and my brain were more important.

During my career I was cited only once for an alleged abuse of force. I, and three of my colleagues, won that case in federal district court with total vindication.

But force is sometimes a necessity when dealing with individuals who resist the power and authority given to police officers. It is a fact of life and the body politic must realize that fact. But when the resistance is overcome, we must stop. There is no longer retribution, payback, or street justice. It is over my friends.

There is only one way to check and balance power and authority — by the law. And we do not need to throw the baby out with the bath water either.

When I was a watch commander at a police department in the 1970s, we had a shooting involving five intoxicated off-duty police officers from multiple jurisdictions who were fighting in the street. Two of them shot at each other. One was wounded.

The incident occurred on my watch and in my jurisdiction. One of the officers involved was a member of our department who fled the scene before we were able to establish order.

I immediately asked that the sheriff’s department, an outside agency, investigate because our department had a potential conflict of interest since our officer was an alleged shooter and fled the scene before he could be interviewed.

There is only one way to manage a death or serious bodily injury allegedly inflicted on a detainee or arrestee by officers while in police custody. 1. Due process and legal rights must be afforded all parties involved. 2. All police officers must wear working body cameras at all times while on duty. 3. City and county jurisdictions must relinquish their investigative and prosecutorial powers and authorities in these cases to the state.

Details must be determined by legislatures in the laws they write. It is the only way.

Gerald G. Doane lives in Grass Valley.


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