Little Rock attorney Reggie Koch is one of the few who have seen the law both from the seat of a police cruiser and from the defense table. After 14 years as a cop, Koch went to law school, and has since become openly critical of police culture and tactics. Recently, he started a podcast called “Justice 101,” where he and guests talk about the complicated issues surrounding police and the law. You can find those podcasts at his website, justice101.net.
You’ve been a vocal critic of police militarization. What’s the issue you see with police militarization?
When people talk about police militarization, they always talk about the government’s 1033 program, where police get military equipment. When I talk about police militarization, I’m not talking about the equipment. When I say we need to demilitarize the police, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a helmet. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a vest or shield. Those are good things. When I talk about police militarization, I’m talking about the training and the attitude: this “us against them” attitude. It doesn’t work and it can’t work in our society. People have had enough of that, I’m afraid.
So how do we fix this?
I suggested at one time that we get away from the “sergeant, lieutenant, captain” — those military names — and go with something else. Supervisor, shift leader, whatever. I think the military and police are so different that you almost can’t cross-train. A lot of departments prefer to hire ex-military, because these people are used to the chain of command. They’re used to wearing uniforms. There’s a lot of things they’re used to that make it easy to come in and fit. Ultimately, though, I think it’s a bad thing. The jobs are so different. It may seem like they’re similar, but they’re not. If I were a chief of police, I’d look hard at hiring ex-military, especially if they’re long-term military. I’m not saying that somebody who went and did their four years can’t be a cop, but you really need to retrain those people.
Do you believe in the idea that the cops who get caught in questionable shootings, brutality or other misconduct are just the “bad apples”?
When I talk about the people that I blame for where we are with policing in America today, I blame the courts, I blame the prosecutors, but mostly I blame the good police. You might say: Why don’t you blame the bad police? I guess I do, but that’s the only thing bad cops know to do. The people who deserve the blame are the good cops who don’t stand up and say, “That’s a bad cop. They’re writing false reports, they’re covering up.” They’re turning a blind eye. Guys that I went to law school with are circuit court judges right now. These are guys I drink beer with. And I don’t dare go to their courtroom and do something unethical. They’re not going to cover for me one iota. It’s going to be my ass, and I know it, and that’s part of the reason I don’t do it. But with bad police officers, that’s not the case. They expect anything they do to be covered up.
Following questionable police shootings, someone always brings up the fact that police sometimes have only split seconds to act, and that hesitation could be the difference between living and dying. Should we train officers to take that extra second to be sure, or will that just get cops killed?
That’s a hard one. How do you do that? How do you tell someone, “Take an extra second?” All I can see that you can do is say, “You’ve got to be sure, and if you’re wrong, it’s going to be your ass.” I’d stop short of saying we need to tell officers to take an extra couple of seconds. There are a lot of bad sons of bitches out there. But it’s not about a couple of seconds. It’s about having a mentality of: “If I don’t do this right, I’m going to get in trouble.” Every profession — lawyers, doctors, everybody — they have to have some level of professional responsibility.
We’ve seen the rage in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., over police shootings and brutality. A lot of that stems from the fact that cops often seem to get a pass when a suspect is injured or killed, except in the most egregious circumstances. Where are we headed if we don’t address this issue?
I believe we’re going to very soon see a time when it will be hard to get anything other than a mistrial. You just won’t be able to get 12 people in the same room who will agree with the police. We’re not there yet, but it’s coming. I had two jury trials that happened last year that hung up solely because, in order to find my client guilty, they had to believe the police over my client. That was too much for some of the jurors. In both cases, five of the jurors just said no. If you’ve got a case where it’s 40 witnesses and one of them has a video of it, yeah, they’ll convict that person. But when the police say, “We don’t know what happened, but we took him down to the station and we sat him down and, even though we don’t have any recordings of it, he confessed to us,” the time is coming when at least one juror on every jury is going to say, “That cop’s a liar just like all the rest of them.”