Why Is it So Hard to Prosecute Police for Homicide?

Many Americans are shocked to see the grand jury fail to indict the police officer who shot and killed Tamir Rice. The brutal killing of the 12-year-old boy, shot within seconds of the cops’ arrival on scene and without warning for holding a toy gun, was tragic, and many hoped to find justice in the courts. Video showing the whole incident, including the officers’ neglect to offer first aid on the scene, seemed to present an open-and-shut case.

We’ve seen this before. Just recently, a judge had to declare a mistrial in the case of the killing of Freddy Gray while in police custody. A grand jury failed to indict officers in the death of Sandra Bland. Eric Garner’s death after being placed in a chokehold also failed to convince a grand jury to indict.

When Officer Darren Wilson wasn’t indicted in the killing of Michael Brown, many speculated that a lack of evidence has been a large part of the problem. Witnesses are notoriously unreliable and give conflicting reports, but cameras just tell one story. This was one of the first mainstream cases to kick off a national discussion about police brutality towards black citizens, and some were hopeful that greater national interest and scrutiny, and maybe body cameras, could help solve the problem.

More cases have come under public scrutiny, which is a good thing. But many of us are now learning what insiders in law enforcement have long known. Even if we can all agree upon the facts of a case, what many citizens think should be a crime isn’t considered one under the law of the land.

There’s definitive video of what many see as clear cases of police misconduct and brutality in the cases of Bland, Rice and Garner. So why can’t officers in these cases be held accountable?

One frequently cited explanation is prosecutorial neglect. Prosecutors, by the nature of their jobs, work very closely with police. They often see themselves on the same side as police. This makes their jobs particularly challenging when police are suspected of a crime.

Prosecutors in the cases of Rice and Brown were both accused of dragging their feet by many observers, which can serve to muddy the waters and to dull the passions of a justice-seeking public. But when compiling a case against a police officer, prosecutors not only have to evaluate the evidence against someone who might be considered a colleague, they have to work with the rest of the police department to gather this evidence. Like many other groups, though perhaps the habit is particularly robust among cops, police like to protect their own.

To overcome this structural hurdle, we might appoint special prosecutors to handle cases against cops. They might be immune from the conflicts of interest that a typical district attorney will face. It might be wise to even appoint them at the state level, to avoid the messy pressures of local politics.

But even this might not be a bold enough tactic. Some argue that the law itself needs to be changed, because police are given far too much leeway to determine what they think is an appropriate use of force.

In the case of Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court decided that the justification of lethal force by a police officer “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” In a recent dissent on a similar case, Justice Sotomayor called this a “‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing.”

This is exactly the problem: by giving the perspectives of a police officer undue weight, we remove the incentive for them to critically examine their actions. If acting on instinct in a split second seems justified to an officer in a given case, and we’re not supposed to judge his actions with hindsight, then there’s little reason to hesitate when pulling the trigger.

Changing this kind of law would not be easy, especially given the far from universal agreement about the importance of addressing police homicides. But we might be able to make significant progress by adjusting police training. Police often use their weapons and force as a means to gain control over fraught situations. Instead, they should be trained to de-escalate potentially violent situations, to ensure the safety of all involved.

If this approach becomes more widely adopted, it will become easier to change the “shoot first, think later” mentality, and then the laws. Because if we are going to reduce unnecessary police killings and improve the relations between cops and minority populations, the law will have to start taking these killings seriously. The law will have to treat cops the way it treats the rest of us.

Photo Credit: Torbakhopper

99 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Amy C.
Amy C2 years ago

because they are in authority

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Doris F.
Doris F2 years ago

ty - interesting incl. comments

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Carl Nielsen
Carl Nielsen2 years ago

Is it legal to walk around in a park and aim at people with a gun? Is it legal to even show a gun in public in that area?

The police were obviously in a hurry to handle what they perceived as a threat.

You sitting safely in your comfy chair with much more information and time to analyze it avaialable to you and swearing you would have done differently in the very inexperienced and only little trained COP's place based on the information and time available to him is a cheap shot.
Who knows - maybe the COP would have handled it differently if the dispatcher had given him the information the caller asking for the police to act had given the dispatcher.

Thats what the man on the ground has to do - act based on limited information of uncertain quality in split second time. And in this case you send a man known to be emotionally weak and with only rudementary training into that situation - here it takes 2 years to become a policeman - this man had just 4 months of police academy.

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Marc P.
Marc P2 years ago

Carl Nielsen: I can honestly swear that I would have acted differently. I would have driven up to about 200 feet away and gotten on the loudspeaker that every police car has and said "Put the gun on the ground without pointing it at me please and come forward to the car." Guns are legal. Even if the kid had one in his hand he would not have been breaking the law.

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Carl Nielsen
Carl Nielsen2 years ago

As for the Tamir Rice case I am not sure I wouldnt have shot too had I been the COP called to deal with him - those pellet guns are deliberately made to look as much like real guns as possible and given the ultra widespread use of guns in the US with laws ensuring that every psychotic and her pet hamster have easy acces to firearms I would have acted with the assumption I was facing a threat with a real firearm.
How many of you could swear you would have acted differently - that you would not have mistaken the pellet gun for a real threat in the split second available to decide to shoot or not?
Even here in Denmark where criminals using firarms is rare, the culture is much less violent than in the US, gun control is much stricter than in the US, the police have far less authority to use lethal force and pellet guns can only be legally sold to and used by adults, the Police have issued warnings because they fear its just a question of time before someone with a pellet gun gets shot (sometime idiots play with them in public places).

Pellet guns are also the most frequent cause for serious eye injuries for boys here, so no parent should let their children have pellet guns.

I would have given first aid though - whether the gun was real or not. I dont understand why the COPs didnt do that.

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Will Rogers
Will Rogers2 years ago

Because it's a police state?

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Dave C.
David C2 years ago

thanks and love the comments, too

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Brian F.
Brian F2 years ago

No other job, allows people to go on paid leave well they are investigated for excessive force. The police are given far too many rights, and rarely even charged with a crime. Even if the are indicted, which is rare, the bar is so high to convict them, that they almost always get away with little to no punishment. It's not illegal to film them, and yet YouTube shows endless videos of the police lying to people and threatening arrest for filming them. The police are just paid thugs who protect the 1%, as we saw in the BLM, excessive student loan and occupy protest when they criminalized people for standing up to an unjust system that oppresses blacks and the poor. Whenever people stand up to peacefully protest injustice, the police side with the oppressors, and criminalize and beat innocent protesters. This is why the police are hated so much. The police fully support our oppressive 80 billion dollar a year private for profit prison industry.

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Marc P.
Marc P2 years ago

I hate to be a cynic, but I'm betting that the only thing that police having tasers will accomplish is many more people being tazed as a form of 'punishment' for daring to question police authority. The taser is nothing more than a modern day bullwhip or truncheon.

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