8 Reasons Why Police in America Keep Killing Civilians and Getting Away With It

Election '16

The question of why police can kill civilians and get away with it isn’t new and isn’t going away. Whether it was a grand jury's decision in late 2014 not to press charges against the cop who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri or a prosecutor's decision a year later on the cops who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, or June’s acquittal in Baltimore of the latest officer facing charges for killing Freddie Gray in April 2015, or a video released this week by police in Fresno, Calif., where officers killed a mentally unstable Dylan Noble on June 25, the same questions, legal assessments and lack of accountability seem to recur—even as the victims' circumstances differ.

Noble was unarmed, but kept walking toward officers while hiding one hand even as the cops warned him and threatened to shoot. The police killings this month of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile near Minneapolis, Minnesota, followed a similar script, in which the officers involved claimed they felt threatened. In all these cases, a complex and volatile mix of factors involving race, police fear, state-sanctioned power and weaponry, questionable training and unaccountable systems interacted.

In 2014, there were 444 “justifiable” homicides by law enforcement, according to FBI statistics. In 2013, there were 461 justifiable homicides, the FBI said. Academic criminologists say that number is closer to 1,000 annually, because not all local department report to the FBI. Between 2005 and 2015, 47 officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter, and 13 have been convicted of murder or manslaughter from fatal on-duty shootings.

There are many factors surrounding police killings and what’s almost always exoneration under America’s criminal justice system. Some are well-known and others less so, but all point to a police culture and criminal justice system that enables cops to target perceived threats, encourages the use of force and is reluctant to second-guess law enforcement when tragedy ensues.

Here are eight features of that system, compiled from testimonials by defense lawyers, reporters and academics.

1. Too many police departments and uneven training. There are 18,000 police departments across America, from local sheriffs and transit cops to state police and federal officers. Most western nations nationalize their policing, which means more uniform training and dealing with broader constituencies so that, one public defender said, it’s less likely local biases and prejudices can take hold.

2. Cops are overmilitarized and trained to be fearful. Police are more heavily armed today than they were 40 years ago. Departments are dumping grounds for surplus military gear from the Defense Department and also buy it from contractors. Police are often trained by private-sector consultants to adopt a warrior mindset, as was the case with the officer in Minneapolis who killed Castile. They are told to focus on perceived threats and react—and often overreact—by using firearms. The video released this week of two officers killing Dylan Noble showed little attempt on the part of the officers to deescalate and bring in mental health specialists, for example.

3. Cops have too much power, compared to judges. Police are allowed to detain civilians based on their suspicions, which can launch a downward spiral. That’s not the same standard as a judge uses to issue search warrants, where probable cause must be shown. As a practical matter, police can and do order people into the street, to lie down, etc., and if they resist, the system kicks into gear, allowing civilians to be arrested, jailed and charged with resisting arrest, even when it is the officer who lost control of the situation and overreacted.

4. Cops are disciplined and policed by their allies. States typically give the responsibility to investigate police shootings to local county attorneys; it’s a rare exception when the Department of Justice steps in. These state attorneys often have inspectors who are ex-cops, public defenders say. The state attorneys and prosecutors also have pre-existing relationships with local police, because they need them as witnesses in their cases. All of that leads to a bias favoring cops who invariably say they felt threatened and needed to shoot to retain control of the situation.

5. The law puts cops' rights above those of civilians. It’s one thing to say police have too much power and are encouraged to use it. But every state has laws, and the Supreme Court reaffirmed these statutes in a 1985 case allowing police to use deadly force if they have “probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” One result of that standard is that police officers who are involved in shootings, the police unions defending them and their legal teams all predictably declare that the officer was justified in shooting. In other words, the law isn’t on the side of civilians when cops use their weapons.

6. Juries typically give cops the benefit of the doubt. Most jurors have no idea what it’s like to be a police officer or aggressive prosecutor, defense lawyers say. White jurors tend to believe that people have nothing to fear from police if they’ve done nothing wrong. People of color who have been racially profiled by police know that isn’t true, but can fear retribution if they testify in open court against police. As a result, public defenders say, it is very hard to get witnesses—especially other cops—to testify against the police. Part of that is police are trained to protect each other, one factor in what’s called the blue code of silence.

7. Mainstream media and politicians tend to side with police. While this is not always the case, especially in the nearly two years since Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s still a truism that many politicians and the press want to be seen as allies of the police. In the same way prosecutors have to work with cops to obtain convictions, many reporters and politicians work with police as well. The press is always quoting police sources, and politicians like to have their endorsement as they seek office—even in red states where they may be attacking other public employee unions.  

8. Police officers almost never pay court costs or fines. Victims of police violence typically end up seeking damages in civil suits because they have lower standards of proof than convicting officers of murder or manslaughter. However, it’s usually police unions that end up covering the court costs, not the officers facing charges, and it is similiarly municipal governments that pay the settlements, academic researchers have found. Those factors work against changing police culture, because police and governmental systems end up insulating the involved officers from financial consequences.

Another Rigged System

It is not a new conclusion to say that policing in America and the criminal justice system are structured to protect cops who use deadly force. Police say they have to be armed because there are so many guns in America. They say the vast majority of police never use their weapons on civilians. But in Europe, in contrast, police don't kill hundreds of civilians year after year, with most getting away with it. Cops are not trained to fear the public and use their firearms when they feel threatened. They're not protected by a police culture and a system of legal precedents that exonerates officers who routinely claim their lives are in danger.

Despite all the public scrutiny and awareness that has come since Brown's death in Ferguson in 2014, police killings in America continue.    

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