Author's Intro to “Shielded”
Joanna Schwartz introduces Shielded: How the Police Became Untouchable
Shielded is the product of more than twenty years that I have spent—first as a civil rights lawyer, and then as a law professor—examining how police can and should be held accountable when they violate people’s rights. As a civil rights lawyer practicing in New York City, I regularly sued the police, seeking money or a court order that the police department change their practices. We won many of our cases, often after long, hard battles in court. These victories were hugely meaningful for our clients, but it was unclear to me what impact they had on the system as a whole.
When I became a professor at UCLA Law School, more than ten years ago, I dedicated myself to studying how civil rights lawsuits make their way through court, and the influence cases have on local governments when they succeed. Several Supreme Court opinions have confidently asserted that successful civil rights suits are an important tool to deter future misconduct. But I came to learn that there were several barriers in the system – invisible to the Court – that made that kind of deterrence impossible. I found that the settlements and judgments in police misconduct lawsuits have almost no impact on the bank accounts of police officers or the budgets of police departments; and that most departments didn’t even pay attention to the information revealed in cases I and so many other civil rights attorneys had worked so hard to bring.
I then began examining the many legal barriers to relief in civil rights cases, and testing the justifications offered by the Supreme Court and government officials for those barriers. Supreme Court opinions and politicians’ talking points are filled with claims that, if it were too easy to sue government, courthouses would be overflowing with frivolous civil rights cases; that police officers would be threatened with bankruptcy every time they made a split-second mistake; and that local governments wouldn’t be able to repair their roads or refurbish their community centers because those dollars would be spent to resolve questionable civil rights cases. But my research over the past ten years have shown that these fears simply do not reflect the reality on the ground. The many barriers to relief in civil rights cases—shields, if you will—are justified by claims about the dangers of making it too easy to sue that are overblown and sometimes, simply false.
I wrote Shielded to set the record straight.
Although filing a lawsuit is often the only way to get any measure of justice and accountability, officials at every level of government have created so many barriers to relief in civil rights cases that the police have become all but untouchable. In Shielded, I describe these shields, show how they have been justified and strengthened by unsupported fears about the dangers of suing police, and tell the stories of people whose rights have been egregiously violated yet have had the courthouse doors shut in their face.
I hope that Shielded can help push us past the polemics and misinformation that too often guide debates about police reform and toward the types of common-sense reforms that I propose in the last chapter of the book. Thanks for taking the time to learn more about Shielded: How the Police Became Untouchable and about these critically important issues.