Sunday Discussion

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

A few months ago, I got a call from a reporter at the Economist asking what I thought about a proposal in the U.K. to make local police chief an elected position. The measure failed, but I thought it was a pretty interesting question. The more I’ve thought about that question since, the more I’m unsure of the answer.

I’ve written a bit before about the problems with over-politicizing the criminal justice system. When you look at prosecutors, for example, guys like Forrest Allgood or Ed Jagels have continued to get reelected despite some pretty egregious misconduct, both by them and their subordinates. And the last 30 years have basically been one long lesson in the perils of mob-based criminal justice policy.

But then, the courts and bar associations have also done very little to discipline and hold rogue prosecutors accountable. While the old axiom that a thinly disguised Bill of Rights probably couldn’t win as a ballot referendum in most states today is probably true, appointed judges haven’t exactly gone out of their way to preserve, say, the Fourth Amendment, either. If it’s a bad idea to look to the electoral process for accountability, where should we look?

We have started to see at least some voter backlash, most notably the two judges in Colorado whom voters refused to retain after learning the two had withheld exculpatory evidence in an innocence case during their time in the DA’s office. The reelection of Dallas County, Texas, DA Craig Watkins was encouraging, too.

I’ve seen quite a bit of academic research into the effects of electing judges (most of it critical), but I’ve seen very little on what effect elections have on prosecutors, and if electing them is preferable to, say, having a governor appoint district attorneys the way a president appoints U.S. attorneys. It would be also interesting to see studies comparing sheriffs (who are generally elected) to police chiefs (who are generally appointed), and what effect each process has on effectiveness, accountability, and civil rights. I haven’t been able to find any such studies.

So what say you, readers? Would choosing more of our criminal justice officials through elections be a good or bad thing? If not through elections, how do we hold bad police chiefs and prosecutors more accountable?

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55 Responses to “Sunday Discussion”

  1. #1 |  Highway | 

    Accountability depends on the terms of the appointment. In a lot of major cities, it’s probably a lot easier to get the (appointed) Police Chief fired than any other official, because they tend to serve at the pleasure of the Mayor. If things go pear-shaped, the mayor has a convenient scapegoat in the Chief of Police. If the guy was elected, then there’s really noone to complain to, since they can always point at the electorate and say “Well, he’s not my responsibility”.

    I think the trouble with appointments is that for a some of them, either the term is for life without question, or there’s no real recall procedure (judges, primarily). And I think we know that even if there is a recall procedure, it’s rarely used except for political point scoring.

    Elections are far worse, tho, because the more people who get elected, the less anyone cares, even if it’s a completely terrible person who ruins every life they touch. If the person doesn’t touch too many lives, or the wrong ones for anyone to care (like criminals), then being on a ballot doesn’t mean anything, since people just reelect everyone on there anyway. Elections are pretty worthless as long as the default action is ‘reelect’ rather than ‘unelect’.

  2. #2 |  Nick | 

    I would think that there should be plenty of data in the United States to show whether this is good or bad, after all, many Sheriffs are elected in the United States (and that is an equivalent position to a Police Chief).

    In Wisconsin in fact, the Sheriff is considered a “partisan election”… meaning that the Sheriff actually declares his political party (as opposed to non-partisan like judges and a few others where no party designation is used). Here in Milwaukee, things like the Sheriff’s budget and control over their Union tends to be a much bigger election issue than actual crime, especially now that the current Sheriff is a Republican.

  3. #3 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    JOR – I’m not suggesting laws which would allow me to beat my wife…

    Oh, right, you could do that under your suggestion with enough cash too.

  4. #4 |  markm | 

    Leon: Is the Mafia really worse than an armed gang with Immunity?

  5. #5 |  JOR | 

    Leon, I didn’t propose any laws that would force me to pay money to the Mafia. Unless you think stripping LEOs of civil and criminal immunity (which is 90% of the way to ‘abolishing professional law enforcement as we know it’) would somehow place me at the mercy of a mafia? I could see how it might shake out that way but it’s not particularly likely (no likelier than ending up at the mercy of some Mafia with the current law enforcement structure in place). And frankly, if they didn’t have (de facto) civil and criminal immunity they’d be less objectionable than the cops anyway.