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Why the Feds Can't Nail Bad Cops

Evidence, suspicions, witness testimony, and prior bad records mean little when cops are on trial, and it's easy to see why.
 
 
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The acquittal of eight Detroit cops and a Miami cop of federal corruption and civil rights charges was no surprise. It once again points up the near impossibility of convicting brutal and corrupt cops even when there is strong evidence of guilt. In the Detroit case, dozens of witnesses, and that included Detroit officers who pleaded guilty to the same charges and agreed to testify for the government, testified that the officers lied, falsified reports and planted evidence. In the Miami case the officer was charged with lying to cover-up the shooting of an alleged unarmed suspect. It was the second time he was charged with lying in a shooting case. Even though he was acquitted in the first case, the city was forced to shell out more than $2 million to the victim's family.

But evidence, suspicions, witness testimony, and prior bad records mean little when cops are on trial, and it's easy to see why. Their victims are generally poor blacks and Latinos, and the attorneys that defend cops accused of abusing them almost always are A-team attorneys. They are highly skilled, and have had much experience defending police officers accused of misconduct. They seek to get as many whites on a jury as possible. The presumption is that white jurors are much more likely to be middle-class, and conservative, and much more likely to believe the testimony of police and prosecution witnesses than black witnesses, defendants, or even the victims. The same rule applies to black or Latino jurors, and both were well represented in the Miami and Detroit cases. They are generally middle-class, and share the same biases, and negative attitudes toward those they perceive as "the criminal element" as many whites.

Prosecutors have a big task in trying to overcome these pro-police, racial attitudes and perceptions. Studies show that many whites believe that blacks are more likely to engage in criminal conduct than whites. A 2003 Penn State University study found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of blacks with violent crimes, and in some cases where crimes were not committed by blacks they misidentified the perpetrator as an African-American.

The frequent media portrayal of young blacks and Latinos as crime-prone, drug-dealing gangsters, the gang and murder violence that continues to wrack many black neighborhoods, and the glorification of the thug lifestyle by many young blacks reinforces negative racial perceptions. This makes many whites, non-blacks and even many blacks guarded, suspicious and fearful of blacks. And with public respect and reverence for the police at astronomical highs since the September 11 terror attacks, it's even harder to convince many jurors that some police lie, beat, maim and even kill unarmed suspects.

Then there's the problem of getting federal prosecutors to mount a vigorous prosecution against bad cops. The Justice Department has long had on the books a strong arsenal of civil rights statutes to prosecute abusive police officers. Yet, more often than not it has taken major press attention, large-scale protests and even a major riot, such as the L.A. riots in 1992 following the Rodney King verdict, before it used its legal weapons.

But federal prosecutors say they can't nail more cops involved in dubious shootings or for abuse because they are hamstrung by the lack of funds and staff, victims who aren't perceived as criminals, and credible witnesses; plus the public's inclination to always believe police testimony. They also claim they are pinned in by the almost impossible requirement that they prove an officer had the specific intent to kill or injure a victim in order to get a conviction.

These are tough obstacles to overcome and since the Justice Department is in the business of winning cases, many prosecutors are more than happy to take a hands-off attitude toward police misconduct cases.

Still, this is no excuse for federal prosecutors not to at least make the effort to prosecute more officers when there is substantial evidence that they used excessive force. This is the legally and morally right thing to do. And it sends a powerful message to law enforcement agencies that the federal government will go after lawbreakers no matter whether they wear a mask, or a badge.

The prosecutions in the Detroit and Miami cases, even though failed, or compromised, still send a strong message that unrestrained acts by violence-prone cops won't be tolerated. This puts police and city officials on notice that they must take stronger action to halt the use of excessive force in their departments.

Federal prosecutors, at least in those cities, should be applauded for doing their best to nail cops suspected of abuse. The fact that they didn't win this time doesn't mean that they shouldn't keep trying to put cops that break the law behind bars.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist.