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Indicting a police officer is uncommon occurrence

December 7, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) — 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 people took to the streets Wednesday to protest 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 Town Hall to contest a traffic ticket.

Earlier this year, a grand jury in North Carolina indicted a police officer for fatally shooting a man who was knocking on doors looking for help after he drove his car off the road.

And a police officer in South Carolina 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.

History shows that grand 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 willing to pursue charges against an officer 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 black 18-year-old shot to death by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Witnesses disagreed about whether Brown was charging the officer when he was killed or was trying to surrender.

If getting an indictment is tough, getting a conviction is even harder, especially in deaths involving a shooting.

Over the past 15 years in New York City, nine police officers have been indicted in four shooting deaths. Only one officer was convicted, and his punishment was light. Officer Bryan Conroy was sentenced to probation and 500 hours of community service in 2005 for the fatal shooting of an unarmed, innocent West African immigrant, Ousmane Zongo, during a warehouse raid in Manhattan.

Two infamous cases ended with acquittals. Jurors exonerated four officers of second-degree murder in the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, another unarmed West African immigrant. A judge acquitted three detectives in the 2006 shooting of Sean Bell, a groom-to-be who was shot leaving a nightclub the morning of his planned wedding.

Those acquittals all involved officers who made a snap judgment to fire their weapons after they thought they saw a weapon.

Indictments in shootings are especially rare. But there are exceptions.

In Oakland, California, an officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2010 for shooting an unarmed man in police custody on a train station platform. The officer said he meant to use a stun gun on the victim, Oscar Grant, and pulled his firearm by accident.

McCoy said if policymakers really want to do something about fatal encounters between police and the public, charging more officers with crimes isn’t the answer.

“Within police departments, they are doing what we, as a citizenry, have told them to do, which is over-incarcerate, arrest people for minor crimes, and use force — justifiable force — to subdue people.

“And then we wonder why the police have bad outcomes,” she said.

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