Digesting police violence against innocent civilians is a complicated and difficult process. Perhaps the only thing more difficult, however, is reconciling the reality that, even as repeated violations by law enforcement continue to occur, there seems almost no chance that cops will ever face any level of significant accountability from America’s two-tiered justice system.
The numbers are simply staggering. While there is no federal database that records police-related shootings or deaths (problem No. 1), some sources have determined that despite annual police-related killings averaging well into the hundreds—we already have 600 people killed by police just halfway into 2016 alone—since 2005, we have seen just 13 police convictions.
Thirteen convictions. In over 10 years, spanning the deaths of several thousand people killed through encounters with those sworn to protect and serve.
Certainly, not every death that occurs at the hands of police warrants a criminal prosecution or conviction. It goes without saying that law enforcement has an incredibly difficult job that requires a unique combination of instincts, discretion and sound judgment. But while not every case warrants an officer being indicted and tried, let alone convicted, it's unimaginable that more aren’t.
In 2015, police killed at least 102 unarmed black people. That is a rate of nearly twice a week. Unarmed. Nearly 30 percent of black people killed by police had no weapon, and that’s just in instances where the ultimate result was death of a suspect. So police are using deadly force nearly 30 percent of the time when dealing with people who aren’t even in possession of anything that would have posed a threat to those officers’ lives.
So why the low conviction numbers?
The first reason is that the badge is literally a license to kill. Officers are afforded wide discretion, not only under the law but, most importantly, within the court of public opinion. Our justice system inherently trusts officers to exercise prudent judgment in their use of force against others, and—whether unspoken or otherwise—there is a presumption of innocence that officers enjoy when there is an interaction that results in a civilian death.
Taken at face value, this might seem to make sense; officers are trained in a variety of areas and repeatedly instructed that lethal force is the last resort. So the idea is that if a gun was drawn and that service weapon was fired, there was no other recourse available to that cop. Sadly, as logical as this may seem on paper, the numbers continually tell a very different story. The fact is, the high number of police-related killings, particularly in instances where victims are unarmed, support a “shoot first, ask questions last” mentality that is pervasive throughout America’s police forces—especially when it comes to the lives of black people.
The next reason is antiquated laws. We’ve seen the movie play out so many times that by now, we know the plot by heart: Officer kills innocent black person. Protests ensue. The Department of Justice or some other independent agency is brought in to conduct an independent investigation. After months of quiet, the investigation reveals a problem of systemic racism within the police department. Fines are assessed along with injunctive relief. The individual officer, however, goes free without a finding of criminal wrongdoing after having enjoyed an extended, and often paid, administrative leave (essentially, a paid vacation).
This speaks not only to the strength and influence of police unions but also to the high standard set by the law to convict officers. Federal civil rights standards require that a prosecutor prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was a willful and intentional deprivation of a citizen’s civil rights in order to convict an officer. Similar to the way that current hate crime laws work, it almost requires some direct evidence or demonstration of discriminatory animus (a racial epithet being yelled during the encounter, for example) in order to establish such intent.
There are obvious flaws here because there is no accounting for implicit bias and systemic, departmental attitudes that influence how officers behave in certain situations. Simply put, that’s not always how racism works in 2016. There is a need to make the standard more attainable, and for courts to recognize the nuances of race and bias in ways that set better precedent and do not shield bad cops from being held accountable for their actions. This comes not only from state and local legislators enacting better laws (which seems to be the exact opposite of what’s occurring now) but also from voters pushing on those same elected officials to appoint judges who can interpret black-letter law in a way that is consistent with present realities. It cannot be stressed enough how important this is.
The final major reason is the blue wall of silence. Police culture in America is a significant reason for why more convictions do not happen, and until it changes, justice will continue to elude us with respect to prosecuting bad cops. It starts when police departments refuse to speak out against rogue officers and continues when police officers refuse to testify against fellow officers who they know committed wrongdoings, or else participate in falsifying documents or “testi-lying” in support of their fellow officers. The individuals most empowered to address this troubling trend are often police officers themselves.
The broken police culture that allows cops to repeatedly get away without redress or punishment is one that has fault on a multitude of levels. In order to reverse these troubling trends and rein in the “long arm of the law,” it will take all of us to show greater courage than that of the cowards with guns and badges that keep turning us from humans into hashtags.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a civil rights trial attorney, legal analyst and former Brooklyn, N.Y., prosecutor. He is also a professor of criminal justice at Berkeley College in New York. Follow him on Twitter.