Where all the homicides are justifiable

Jamelle Bouie at Slate explains why “the simple fact is that the police can kill for almost any reason with little fear of criminal charges.”

It’s extremely rare for a police officer to face an indictment for a shooting, much less criminal punishment. “The FBI reported 410 justifiable homicides by law enforcement in 2012,” noted Talking Points Memo in an August story following the events in Ferguson, “The number of indictments appear to be minimal after a TPM review of available press reports.” And it’s not just shootings; earlier this year, Georgia police mistakenly raided a home and seriously injured a young child. Prosecutors convened a grand jury, and the grand jury voted against an indictment. “The drug investigation that led to these events was hurried, sloppy, and unfortunately not in accordance with the best practices and procedures,” wrote the grand jury in its decision. Still, no one from the police force was held accountable.

In other words the police are presumed innocent and then found innocent in almost all circumstances. Police conduct is protected by a very high wall indeed.

When you add this climate of legal deference to the particular circumstances of the grand jury trial—including McCullough’s reputation for supporting police officers, and his decision to avoid a recommendation for charges—the non-indictment was almost inevitable. Barring something extraordinary, Wilson was going to walk free. The judicial system as we’ve constructed it just isn’t equipped—or even willing—to hold officers accountable for shootings and other offenses. Or put differently, the simple fact is that the police can kill for almost any reason with little fear of criminal charges.

Which is to say this: It would have been powerful to see charges filed against Darren Wilson. At the same time, actual justice for Michael Brown—a world in which young men like Michael Brown can’t be gunned down without consequences—won’t come from the criminal justice system. Our courts and juries aren’t impartial arbiters—they exist inside society, not outside of it—and they can only provide as much justice as society is willing to give.

And that’s clearly just not very much.


  1. Blanche Quizno says

    Things reached fever pitch when Seattle police officer Ian Birk shot and killed John T. Williams, an unarmed Native American woodcarver. Williams was walking on a downtown Seattle street, tool in hand. As he crossed the street in front of a police car, the officer got out, followed Williams and ordered him to drop his knife.

    Just seven seconds later, when Williams failed to comply, the officer shot him multiple times. Later, that officer testified he felt threatened.

    Like the shooting of Michael Brown, this case went to local and state authorities for review of possible criminal charges. In January 2011, a local inquest jury found that the officer was not in danger, and that Williams (who had hearing impairments) did not have adequate time to drop his knife.

    But a majority of jurors also found that the officer did believe Williams was a threat. They made this seemingly contradictory ruling because the state sets a very high legal burden for prosecuting police.

    Under state law, the prosecutor must prove an officer acted with malice and without a good faith belief the shooting was justified. There was insufficient evidence to meet that standard, so the local state prosecutor determined state charges could not be brought. – Jenny A. Durkan, United States Attorney in Western Washington for five years, until October 2014 http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/24/as-a-federal-prosecutor-i-know-how-hard-it-is-to-convict-officers-like-darren-wilson/

    There is *ALWAYS* insufficient evidence to meet that standard.

    In this case, the cop murdered a *DEAF* man because he didn’t instantly obey the cop’s verbal command. Who do these guys think they are?? Rather, why do we allow our fellow citizens to behave so monstrously?

  2. qwints says

    Police act as if they believe that any conceivable threat justifies lethal force.

    Officer Malone: Are you going home now?.

    Elliott Ness: I was about to.

    Malone: Well, then, you just fulfilled the first rule of law enforcement. Make sure when your shift is over you go home alive. Here endeth the lesson.

    The first rule of policing and the harm it does

  3. says

    Make sure when your shift is over you go home alive

    Police deaths have been on a downward trend for some time; they just complain more about it. Police deaths hit their peak during the CIA-sponsored cocaine wars of the mid 1980s; if they want someone to blame for that, they should try Langley, Virginia. The truth is that cops are better equipped, more heavily armed, more likely to be armored, with better communications than ever.

    Cops are just whiners. You know who should be scared? People who have to deal with cops should be scared.

  4. RJW says

    @3 Marcus Ranum,

    “Cops are just whiners.”

    Societies get the police force they deserve, and civilians in the US are very well armed compared with other liberal democracies, it’s not surprising that American police forces are quasi-military in their law enforcement practices, with a disproportionate number of lethal encounters with civilians.
    Are grand juries the most efficient method of obtaining an indictment, they have been abolished in all other common law legal systems? Why not present the evidence to a magistrate or judge?

  5. busterggi says

    The cops and prosecutors aren’t interested in justice – they’re interested in winning cases no matter the evidence, and judges are largely political hacks. There is no hope for our system as it is.

  6. smrnda says

    cops are whiners. isn’t even a dangerous job compared with working in a meat packing plant or a mine.

    cops should be subject to a different legal system in which they face harsher penalties with less burden for evidence for misconduct on the job. even if this doesn’t work out legally, at least cops who engage in ‘sloppy’ drug raids not according to ‘best policy’ should be fired, and banned from any government job ever again.

    the cops face zero oversight from the public. when they fuck up people die, and they are held less accountable for fuckups than someone working at a fast food joint.

  7. karmacat says

    The Ferguson police and Missouri governor are to blame for the riots. They should have been investigating police practices and see how they could do better. There is clearly so much animosity between the police and the community, that it was likely that someone from the community would get shot. I think in a lot of ways the police see the townspeople as the “other,” as the “enemy.” They also should not have left Michael Brown’s body there for 4 hours. There are police departments around the country who have changed how they do things to prevent tragedies like this. I also think the police should wear body cameras because it protects both the police and the public. And having everyone pick one side or the other is making things worse. It is better to work on what the police and townspeople can do together rather than on which side is right.

  8. Al Dente says

    “The FBI reported 410 justifiable homicides by law enforcement in 2012,” noted Talking Points Memo

    According to the FBI:

    95 law enforcement officers were killed in line-of-duty incidents in 2012. Of these, 48 law enforcement officers died as a result of felonious acts, and 47 officers died in accidents.

    So almost 10 times as many civilians were killed by cops as cops were killed by civilians.

  9. John Horstman says

    @Al Dente #8: Not even close – there are generally between 1,000 and 2,000 killings by police every year, as far as anyone can tell (becasue official counts are suppressed – I tried to write a paper on this one time and the best research I could find was using estimates extrapolated from news stories, becasue every single law enforcement agency categorically refuses to issue numbers on how many people it kills). See my link above.

  10. blbt5 says

    As Rachel Maddow has reported recently in the inexplicable FBI shooting of a Boston Bomber associate while under questioning and in custody, the FBI itself has reported hundreds of similar suspicious shootings by its own agents, every one of which held the FBI blameless in any respect.

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