Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Indicting a Police Officer Is Uncommon Occurrence

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Indicting a Police Officer Is Uncommon Occurrence

Article excerpt

NEW YORK * At least 400 people are killed by police officers in the United States every year, and while the circumstances of each case are different, one thing remains constant: In only a handful of instances do grand juries issue an indictment, concluding that the officer should face criminal charges.

Successful prosecutions generally involve officers who have lied about what they've done, tried to cover up their actions, or used excessive force to inflict punishment.

Even as protesters took to the streets over the past week to decry the failure of a grand jury to indict an officer who used a fatal chokehold on an unarmed man in New York City, a grand jury in South Carolina voted to bring murder charges against Richard Combs, a small-town police chief who fatally shot an unarmed man who had come to contest a traffic ticket.

Earlier this year, a grand jury in North Carolina indicted a Charlotte-Mecklenburg officer for fatally shooting a former college football player who was knocking on doors looking for help after he drove his car off the road.

And a police officer in North Augusta, S.C., was indicted in August on a charge of misconduct in office after he shot a 68-year- old man who had failed to pull over for a traffic stop, and instead drove home.

It is difficult to generalize about why some cases lead to criminal charges, while others do not, but history shows that jurors may have less sympathy for officers who are guilty of more than just poor judgment during a crisis.

Police who get caught lying tend to get charged. So do those who use force to inflict punishment rather than to protect themselves, or who instigate physical confrontations for reasons that seem personal, rather than professional.

"If an officer goes rogue, really, and is acting personally, and not as an officer of the law, that's when you'll see a criminal charge," said Candace McCoy, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Philip Matthew Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who has been studying a database of 10,000 police arrests for various types of misconduct, said judges and juries are perfectly willing to throw the book at officers if they did something that went beyond their official duties, like robbing a drug dealer or using the authority of their badge to settle a personal score.

"If the jury is sitting there thinking, 'Oh, my God. A split- second decision like that? What would I have done? Would I have shot the guy?' you're not going to get an indictment," he said.

Second-guessing an officer's judgment can get even harder if there are conflicting accounts about what happened. That was the case in the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old shot to death in Ferguson. Witnesses disagreed about whether he was charging the officer when he was killed or was trying to surrender. …

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