We’ve heard from the St. Louis County grand jury. And unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of days, you know the result: Jurors returned a “no true bill” decision or, put simply, no indictment of Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown. So many of us have asked: Under what circumstances would a cop be indicted for killing an unarmed man?
The answer: It takes a lot.
Police officers have a much broader range of defenses against criminal liability when cases involve claims of self-defense or defense of others. And for better or worse, prosecutors have more options not to charge officers in these situations.
It’s because the criminal-justice system is designed to protect officers in the line of duty even when the officer may have been negligent. In most states, police officers have a right to shoot to kill if they believe it is necessary to stop a threat to their own life or someone else’s, which contradicts what most people believe: that officers should use their weapon only to shoot to wound or stop the threat.
A police officer’s self-defense claim is almost impenetrable when officers are in the line of duty, as we are seeing with these cases:
* Michael Brown, shot and killed Aug. 9;
* John Crawford III, shot and killed Aug. 5.; and
* Eric Garner, choked to death July 17.
These three cases are strikingly similar and threatening to black men who live with the reality of profiling and police brutality. We live in a world where we can take a regular trek to the store and possibly never come back because a police officer—someone sworn to serve and protect us—negligently or, in some cases, purposely kills us, and that officer may never be criminally charged. It’s frightening.
In the case of Garner, the weapons used by the police officers were their bare hands. Garner was accused of selling “loosies”—cigarettes sold individually, not in a pack, and most often not taxed. That type of violation typically results in a citation or ticket and should never have resulted in the forcible arrest that Garner endured.
The video of Garner clearly shows that a police officer was on Garner’s back utilizing a choke hold, a technique that’s banned in New York City. Sadly, that choke hold resulted in his untimely death. Initially, the New York City Police Department released a statement that no choke hold was used, but luckily for the Garner family, there was video available and police had to acknowledge shortly thereafter that a choke hold was used, and the coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide—but so far, no officers have been indicted.
In the case of Crawford, a 911 call was made in which the caller stated that a man was walking around a Wal-Mart, pointing a rifle at patrons in a threatening manner. According to the police officers’ account of what happened, they approached Crawford and told him to drop his weapon. They said he didn’t respond and raised the weapon in a threatening manner, which, they say, is why they shot and killed him. But Wal-Mart video was finally released, showing that Crawford wasn’t threatening the officers and they shot him without provocation. Again, no arrest has been made in the case.
As we wait to see what happens in these cases, the odds remain stacked against the families seeking justice, and so, despite the obstacles, we wait for the slow wheels of justice hopefully to turn and prevail.
Eric Guster is a civil rights and criminal-defense trial lawyer. He appears regularly on HLN, MSNBC, Fox and CNN as a legal analyst and commentator. Follow him on Twitter. Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.