It's time for a Uniform Code of Police Justice

Dereliction of duty involves a soldier who fails to perform his or her required duties. Under the UCMJ, soldiers can be criminally prosecuted for dereliction of duty in cases of simple negligence. This differs sharply from the civilian system, in which civilians can be criminally prosecuted only for gross negligence. For example, in United States v. Lawson, a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps was criminally prosecuted for dereliction of duty for failing to post individuals with reflective vests (often referred to as road guards) at designated checkpoints in order to facilitate the safe movement of vehicles at night. (The failure to properly post road guards can be tragic, as happened at Camp Pendleton when a seven-ton truck ran over an entire battalion of Marines whom the driver could not see.) In the civilian system, this kind of negligence would likely subject the individual only to potential tort liability — not criminal sanction as was the case in Lawson. Military courts have criminally prosecuted soldiers for a wide range of behavior under this law, including violation of the rules of engagement and failure to report drug use by subordinates.

Accordingly, a UCPJ could pattern its culpability requirements on the military’s dereliction-of-duty cases. For example, a knowing violation of a statute governing use of force would result in the highest penalty. Presumably, police officers, like soldiers, would be instructed on these rules as part of their training. But even if a police officer were not aware of the rule, he or she could still be prosecuted under a straightforward negligence theory, in the same way soldiers are currently held responsible.

Conduct unbecoming an officer is another provision in the UCMJ that contains no civilian analogue. It is more general in nature and applies only to officers who are expected to inspire the trust and respect of their subordinates.