Scott Colom: The police balancing act

September 28, 2011 1:02:00 PM

Scott Colom - [email protected]


The recent outcry over the execution of Troy Davis reminded me of the difficult balancing act for police. On the one hand, with every homicide the police are under tremendous pressure to solve the crime quickly. The longer it takes them to find the guilty person, the more citizens feel vulnerable and question the police. This pressure is intensified in small towns like Columbus, where citizens aren't accustom to weekly reports of homicides.  


The last few weeks have been a prime example of this. After a string of murders here, citizens have been expressing serious concern about their safety. At the grocery stores, restaurants, churches, and football games, everyone has been rhetorically asking what's going on in Columbus and looking to the police for answers. Interim Police Chief Selvain McQueen told me he's received a steady stream of calls over the last week asking him how the police plan to stop the murder spree. 


On the other hand, under this pressure, the police must find the right person. Sometimes, this isn't difficult. The police may find forensic evidence or have several credible witnesses to the crime. Other times, a suspect isn't staring the police in the face. There isn't evidence or leads or witnesses, and the police must investigate the case from the bottom up, slowly and patiently looking for the right clues, the link to the right person. The public doesn't always have patience for this approach, and this impatience can cause the police to become eager and desperate to find a suspect. 


Critics of the execution of Troy Davis claim eagerness and acts of desperation by the police in Georgia caused the death of an innocent man. Davis was convicted of killing an off-duty police officer, Mark MacPhail, as the officer tried to defend a man being assaulted in a nearby parking lot. Davis consistently proclaimed his innocence, even testifying in his defense at his trial.  


After the conviction, seven of the nine prosecution eyewitnesses recanted most of their testimony against Davis. One of the witnesses claimed the police scared him into falsely testifying against Davis by threatening to charge him as an accessory to the crime. Others said the police set up the eyewitness identification against Davis by showing them his photograph before the lineup and re-enacting the crime with the witnesses as a group to make the identifications uniform. The police consistently denied these allegations and reaffirmed their belief in Davis' guilt.  


Davis's execution has sparked a debate about the fairness of our criminal justice system and the morality of the death penalty. What I hope doesn't get lost in this debate is the role the public has in setting the right priorities and expectations for the police. The police don't live in a bubble. In moments like this, where everyone is chatting about the recent murders or complaining about the lack of arrests, the police feel pressure to solve the crimes. They feel pressure to make us feel safe.  


In this regard, we must be realistic. Our police officers aren't superheroes. As Chief McQueen told me, he doesn't have a crystal ball. It may take time to solve a crime, and occasionally, despite their best efforts, the police won't ever find the perpetrator. Yet, we can't let our disappointment with this reality allow us to pressure our police to the point where they feel like they must get an arrest at all costs, even if means circumventing the law or tampering with evidence. We must remember convicting an innocent person is worse than not solving the crime, and that in matters of life or death, prison or freedom, it's up to us to make sure the balancing scales bend toward justice.

Scott Colom is a local attorney.