Criminal convictions for police rare
One doesn’t have to be a legal expert in the United States to recognize this fact: most police aren’t convicted if they are faced with alleged crimes. In fact, in many instances, criminal charges aren’t even brought against an officer. Whether the crime is a violation of a citizen’s civil rights or an even more troubling crime like homicide, police usually are not convicted. Even in those rare instances where police are found guilty, they usually receive a much lighter sentence than what a private citizen would receive if convicted of the same crime.
But instead of looking at police accused of all crimes, let’s narrow our focus to police shootings as there have been several high-profile cases of police brutality recently. How unusual is it to see a police officer get convicted for wrongdoing in a shooting? Consider there are approximately 1,000 police shootings resulting in fatalities each year; however, in the years between 2005 and 2017, just 82 police officers were charged with a crime after a fatality in an on-duty shooting. That means police were charged roughly only 2% of the time. Out of the 82 officers who were charged, only 29 of them were convicted. What’s more, most of these convictions were for the less serious charge of manslaughter. To break this down further, that means that police got convicted less 1% of the time, .725% to be exact, in officer-involved shootings.
Why is this?
Police convictions unlikely and complicated
Usually, the reasons why police aren’t convicted for shootings, police brutality, or other wrongdoing are complicated, but in short, it’s because there is usually not enough evidence to warrant a conviction. Also, there must be evidence the officer acted willfully with criminal intent, deemed so by the Supreme Court all the way back in 1945, and again 40 years later in 1985.
What this means in a nutshell? “Criminal intent” means the officer is willfully attempting to kill someone, not just stop a suspect, but willfully kill. AND, this intent must be proven “beyond reasonable doubt.”
Despite the numerous media accounts of police shootings in the past few years, juries and judges tend to be biased in favor of police. To some degree, perhaps even some prosecutors are hesitant to go after police officers as they feel like they’re all part of the same team. But perhaps, more importantly, the prosecutors feel there is lack of sufficient evidence to garner a conviction. More on that later.
As seen in recent, much publicized police shootings, even the use of video, shot by citizens or by the officer’s own body cameras, there remains the argument: the officer feels his or her life was in danger. The officer feels the person had a weapon or otherwise posed a threat. The person had a weapon and didn’t obey the officer’s commands.
In other words, a police officer feels a perceived threat from the suspect, and shoots the suspect. This perceived threat could be a failure of the suspect to comply with commands. It could be the suspect’s advancing towards an officer with a weapon, or something mistaken for a weapon (i.e., cell phone). It could be the officer feeling the suspect’s actions jeopardized the officer’s life or the lives of others.
Use of excessive force
In short, what constitutes “excessive force” is quite complicated. Furthermore, the average person might see something that appears to be excessive force (say, a video clip from police body cam footage or from a cell phone video of an officer-involved shooting), which might actually be completely legal according to the letter of the law.
Essentially, police are allowed to use deadly force if they feel that a suspect may cause serious physical harm or death to the officer(s) or to others. The law even allows an officer to prevent such a suspect from escaping. And, if a suspect is shot by police, it is often difficult to prove the suspect was not posing a risk of inflicting harm or death. State laws may very; however, federal law dictates that a police officer must be intentionally attempting to kill someone if a conviction is to take place. Moreover, in a federal case, just as in a state-level situation, a prosecutor is unlikely to even pursue a case unless a conviction is likely.
As such, the district attorney may not even feel criminal charges against an officer involved in a fatal shooting are warranted based on lack of sufficient evidence. Officers usually get the benefit of the doubt, regardless of the highly emotional subject of police shootings, media coverage, and the feelings of the community. If the case does make it to trial, many other variables come into play:
- How accurate is police testimony? In a recent, widely publicized trial, three police officers were charged with conspiracy in lying on behalf of another officer who shot Laquan McDonald in Illinois. The three officers were subsequently acquitted.
- After the jury (who has received education about what the law says regarding use of excessive force by police) witnesses the evidence, will they conclude that the officer(s) was not at risk of being hurt or killed?
- Will the jury, who will see evidence that the public hasn’t, conclude that the police officer intentionally tried to kill someone?
Ultimately, convictions of police in officer-involved shootings remain quite unlikely.