The Judicial System's Blessing Of Police Use Of Excessive Force Makes It Nearly Impossible To Hold Bad Cops Accountable

by Tim Cushing
Techdirt
Aug. 28, 2014

It's not just the thin blue line insulating bad cops from accountability, it's the entire judicial system. From lower-level judges treating statements from police with amazing amounts of credulity even in the face of past misconduct or contradictory recordings to the nation's top court, the judiciary branch, giving police officers built-in defenses that far exceed those available to the public.

An op-ed by Edwin Chemerinsky (lawyer and Dean of Law at the University of California, Irvine) notes that recent decisions by the Supreme Court have put even more distance between bad cops and accountability. Earlier this year, the nation's top court essentially gave police officers permission to open fire on anyone deemed a threat and not stop firing until they determined the threat to be neutralized.

A suspect that led police on a 100-mph chase met his end when police officers fired 15 bullets in his vehicle, killing him and his passenger. Although other methods may have ended this chase without resulting in the suspect's death, the Supreme Court found nothing about this use of force was "excessive."
The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and ruled unanimously in favor of the police. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said that the driver’s conduct posed a “grave public safety risk” and that the police were justified in shooting at the car to stop it. The court said it “stands to reason that, if police officers are justified in firing at a suspect in order to end a severe threat to public safety, the officers need not stop shooting until the threat has ended.”
While the police have access to a wide variety of tactics and less-lethal weapons when dealing with "public safety risks," there's really no need for them to use anything but their guns. (Which they do… with gusto.) The Supreme Court's decision turns any perceived threats to "public safety" (practically speaking, "officer safety") into blank checks for excessive force.

Federal courts aren't much better than the Supreme Court when it comes to prosecuting excessive force. Amanda Taub at Vox, writing about the ongoing investigation into Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson's killing of unarmed resident Mike Brown, notes that while officers can find themselves facing both local and federal charges, Officer Wilson's chances of walking away from this situation intact are still very high.
Simple murder is not a federal offense, but it is a federal crime for a police officer to deprive someone of his rights under the Constitution. If a victim dies, the perpetrator can be sentenced to life in prison or even the death penalty. That means the DOJ could prosecute Wilson under federal law for violating Brown's civil rights, if the evidence supports that charge.

Federal civil rights prosecutions are rare, though, and convictions are even rarer. A study from Syracuse University's TRAC program found that between 1986 and 2003, fewer than 2 percent of civil rights matters referred to the DOJ were ever prosecuted. Out of 43,331 referrals, 690 were actually prosecuted — and of those, 423 resulted in a conviction.
If pursuing criminal charges seems futile, Wilson could still face a civil lawsuit, with only a slightly greater chance of success. This, too, can be traced back to the Supreme Court.
When there is not absolute immunity, police officers are still protected by “qualified immunity” when sued for monetary damages. The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia in 2011, ruled that a government officer can be held liable only if “every reasonable official” would have known that his conduct was unlawful. For example, the officer who shot Michael Brown can be held liable only if every reasonable officer would have known that the shooting constituted the use of excessive force and was not self-defense.
We already know the Ferguson Police Dept. believes Wilson's actions to be defensible. Statements released by the department claim that Mike Brown got into an altercation with Officer Wilson and tried to grab his gun. It has also claimed that Officer Wilson suffered injuries from Wilson's attack (although it has released no photos or medical information to back up these claims). The courts have repeatedly shown that officers claiming to fear for their safety are fully justified in deploying deadly force. In the absence of any start-to-finish recordings of the incident, it becomes the police department's word against the words of Mike Brown's legal representatives. And the department will have some form of immunity as well as "officer safety" to deploy in its defense.

With all of this in play, it seems unlikely that there will be a satisfactory resolution to the Ferguson situation. And, despite all appearances otherwise, Officer Wilson may truly be justified in his shooting of Mike Brown. But the legal roadblocks erected by every level of the judicial system makes it extremely difficult to combat the use of excessive force. Even when the system comes together to punish officer wrongdoing, it's rarely the officer that bears the burden. Whether it's a settlement or a prison sentence, it's still the public footing the bill.







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