A grand jury in Ferguson just failed to indict officer Darrell Wilson. In view of the historical record, this is—sadly—the expected outcome. Across the United States, bad police officers are routinely cleared of wrongdoing.

This is the central problem with 9-1-1.  While police forces are home to many exemplary officers, there is no reliable mechanism for firing bad cops.  Officers who use excessive force get evaluated by a series of institutions that give them the benefit of the doubt.  The end result is that many abusive officers stay on the force.

The Path to Investigation

The first step in citizens trying to get an abusive or corrupt officer fired is to lodge a complaint with the force’s Internal Affairs office.  However, these offices tend to side with the police officers they serve alongside every day, rather than civilians they don’t know.  Indeed, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that only 8 percent of excessive force complaints are sustained nation-wide.

Admittedly, some complaints are frivolous. But as TechDirt reports,“many cases boil down to not much more than the complainant’s word against the officer’s,”.  This scenario, “rarely goes the complainant’s way”.

If Internal Affairs considers a complaint worthy, the next step is even more tilted in officers’ favor.  If the complaint goes to court, it will be handled by prosecutors and attorney generals who see themselves as allied with police in a war on crime.  St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, for instance, had strong ties to the local police force: his father, mother, uncle, brother, and cousin all worked for the force. That simpatico relationship means that prosecutors tend to be biased in favor of the officers they’re prosecuting.  While there are good reasons for prosecutors to be friendly with police departments, that relationship creates an incentive for prosecutors to dismiss claims of police abuse.

Additionally, police unions produce rules that protect bad officers.  Police chiefs and mayors are often banned by contract from summarily dismissing problem cops. Many police officers involved in shootings are not required to give statements until  1-3 days after the incident.  Such rules provide another layer of insulation that protects bad cops.

The end result is that in 2011, 95 percent of all police-involved shootings were determined to be justified.  While police shootings can certainly be justified sometimes, that number is a little extreme.

Alternatives

This means that calling 9-1-1 is a grab-bag.  Because abusive or corrupt officers are almost impossible to fire, and because citizens don’t know which officers have been accused of wrongdoing—that information is redacted in public records—you never know what you’re going to get.  You might end up with an exemplary officer who saves your life.  Or you might end up at the mercy of an officer like this.  While the latter are—thankfully—uncommon, the outsize power they wield as officers, and the fact that they are rarely fired, makes them a consistent risk.

Luckily, private competitors to 9-1-1 offer people an alternative.

Private security forces like Threat Management Center cannot tolerate bad agents and continue to survive. These companies are under constant scrutiny from both their paying clients and police forces.  Agents are bereft of qualified immunity, so they’re trained to use force as a last resort.  Many companies force agents to videotape everything they do, to offer maximum “quality assurance” to their clients.  And if an agent acts like the villain instead of the hero, he or she can be fired in hours.

Apps like Peacekeeper offer another alternative to calling 9-1-1.

Peacekeeper is a free app that lets you build a voluntary network of friends, family, and neighbors that can rely on each other in an emergency.  These networks can be faster than calling 911.  And, because you vet every member of your network personally, the possibility of abuse is slim to none.

When one person has an emergency, such as a home invasion, they send out an alert to their Peacekeeper network.  Friends and neighbors can respond in minutes.  The app is community-based: everyone on your network knows you, and many of them know each other.  Because your network cares about you personally, you know they have the right incentives—they’re not going to show up and accidentally shoot your dog, for instance, because they’ve known Smoky for years.  It’s a protection model that’s faster and more personal than 9-1-1.

Calling 9-1-1 shouldn’t be risky, but the impossibility of firing bad officers means that it is.  When you’re in an emergency, you have enough to worry about; you shouldn’t have to worry about the people you call for help.  Private, community based alternatives can give you peace of mind.