A Disturbing Pattern
Why it’s nearly impossible to nail cops for using deadly force
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 08/14/2014
Mike Brown is the latest name on the growing list of victims of brazen overuse of deadly force by cops. The 18-year-old Brown had his hands raised when he was gunned down by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer after a stop. Brown fit the usual pattern of those killed. In almost all cases the victims are unarmed and not accused of committing a crime. Their killings also occur in broad daylight and with witnesses present.
Another part of this familiar and deeply disturbing pattern is that they are young African Americans or Latinos. The officers who commit these deadly acts are placed on paid administrative leave and police officials, when confronted with demands from civil rights and community leaders for an investigation, make solemn promises to do just that. They assure us their investigations will be thorough and impartial.
That’s the start of the problem. The police agencies that are on the hot seat for a dubious shooting or another act that results in the death of a civilian investigate themselves. There is almost never an independent outside agency that will conduct a truly impartial investigation. The one agency that can do that is the US Department of Justice.
Despite this wave of highly questionable police shootings of mostly young blacks and Latinos the Justice Department has done almost nothing to nail shoot-first cops. Periodic reports on police misconduct by Human Rights Watch, an international public watchdog group, found that federal prosecutors bring excessive force charges against police officers in less than 1 percent of the cases investigated by the FBI. The group also found that there has been almost no increase in the skimpy number of police misconduct cases prosecuted by the Justice Department in the past decade.
Even in the rare cases in which cops are hauled into court for overuse of deadly force, it’s nearly impossible to convict them. Their defense lawyers are top guns with lots of experience defending police officers accused of misconduct. Police unions bankroll their defense and spare no expense. Cops rarely serve any pre-trial jail time and are released on ridiculously low bail.
If the cops are tried by a jury, police defense attorneys seek to get as many middle-class people — whites and even blacks and Latinos — on the jury as possible. The presumption is that they are much more likely to believe the testimony of police and prosecution witnesses than black witnesses, defendants or even the victims.
It’s an uphill battle for prosecutors to overcome both pro-police attitudes and negative racial stereotypes. Stanford University researchers recently found that even when many whites are presented with evidence that the criminal justice system is loaded with racial bias toward blacks, they are more likely to support tough, draconian laws and tough sentencing. The galling conclusion of the researchers was that informing many whites that African Americans are significantly overrepresented in the prison population “may actually bolster support for the very policies that perpetuate the inequality.”
The negative perceptions of blacks — especially black males — by much of the public are not the only problem in initiating effective legal measures against police violence. There is no ironclad standard of what is an acceptable use of force in police misconduct cases. It often comes down to a judgment call by the officer involved. In the Rodney King beating case in 1992, in which four LAPD officers stood trial, defense attorneys painted King as the aggressor and claimed that the level of force used against him was justified. This pattern has been evident in a number of celebrated cases since then. Police claim that they feared for their lives in confronting civilians and that they use deadly force solely in self-defense. If brought to trial, judges and juries routinely buy this line and acquit.
The code of silence is another powerful obstacle to convicting bad cops. Officers hide behind it and refuse to testify against other officers, or they tailor their testimony to put the officer’s action in the best possible light.
Prosecutors often are barred from using statements made during internal investigations of officer misconduct in court proceedings on grounds of self-incrimination. This knocks out another potentially crucial prosecution weapon. Federal prosecutors who retried the officers that beat King learned a vital lesson from the abysmal failure of local prosecutors to convict them. They did not rely exclusively on the videotape evidence but on expert testimony on the use of force. That proved that the officers went way over the top against King. Despite the massive amounts of time, resources and care devoted to that case, two of the four officers were still acquitted.
If past history is any guide, the investigations into the killing of Brown and Eric Garner by chokehold by a New York City police officer after months of time passing will go down in the books as justified or within police policy. This again will prove the point that it is nearly impossible to nail cops for using deadly force. n
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author, political analyst and a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media and weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on American Urban Radio Network. He is also the host of the weekly “Hutchinson Report” on KTYM 1460 AM in Los Angeles, and KPFK 90.7 FM and the Pacifica Radio Network. Follow Earl on Twitter at http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson.