Indictments, convictions of police officers in civilian deaths rare

Based on history, even if Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson is indicted in the shooting death of Michael Brown, getting a conviction would seem unlikely.

The National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project tracked cases of alleged police misconduct between April 2009 and December 2010. The project, an initiative of the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, found that of 2,716 officers accused of using excessive force, only about 200 were charged and 77 were convicted. About 30 of the nearly 430 officers accused of killing a person using excessive force were charged. Only half were convicted.

Christina Swarns, chief litigator for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said any effort to get a conviction related to a police-involved shooting should probably start with the question: “Who is investigating the police?”

“The assumption is that prosecutors represent the interests of victims, but [that’s not the case] when police shootings come into play,” she said, adding that police officers and prosecutors often work “hand in hand.”

“We have to make sure the people who have authority over [filing charges] are independent and don’t have a pony in the race.”

In Florida, an officer has not been charged in a shooting in 20 years despite a history of “deadly, racially tinged police confrontations, many of them involving unarmed men,” according to The New York Times.

The last time a Chicago police officer was convicted of killing a civilian was in 1995, when off-duty officer Gregory Becker killed a homeless man in River North. Becker was sentenced to 15 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter, armed violence and official misconduct.

Another Chicago cop, Dante Servin, was charged in 2013 with involuntary manslaughter and reckless discharge of a weapon in the high-profile shooting death of Rekia Boyd. It was the first time since the Becker conviction that a Chicago police officer had faced charges for killing someone. Servin goes on trial in December.

In cases of lethal police force, the person shot and killed obviously can’t give his or her side of the story. Sometimes witness accounts conflict, such as in the Michael Brown case in Ferguson.

Emmett Farmer’s son Flint was fatally shot by Chicago police officer Gildardo Sierra in 2011 after Sierra and other officers responded to a domestic violence call from Farmer’s girlfriend. Farmer allegedly was shot as he ran from the apartment. Video footage from another officer’s dashboard camera showed Sierra standing above Farmer shooting him three times in his back after he fell while fleeing. Sierra said he thought Farmer’s cell phone was a gun, but Farmer was unarmed.

The city settled a lawsuit with Flint Farmer’s estate for $4.1 million but never admitted wrongdoing. Prosecutors opted not to press charges against the officer.  After a two-year investigation, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez ruled the shooting justified, accepting the claim by Sierra, who admitted to having multiple alcoholic drinks before the episode, that he had acted in self-defense and feared for his life.

“How can [the officer] be fearing for his life with my son lying on his stomach, already shot and bleeding?” Farmer’s father said.

In a letter to Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy obtained by the Chicago Tribune, Alvarez wrote: “Not every mistake demands the action of the criminal justice system, even when the results are tragic.”

Allegations of police misconduct in Chicago are another matter. Of the 441 police misconduct cases that led to city payouts between January 2009 and November 2011, 75 percent were related to excessive force and wrongful arrest. But the city rarely admitted any wrongdoing despite dishing out millions of dollars in settlements, and the accusations did not yield a single indictment or conviction.

A third of the cases involved “repeaters” named in multiple cases since 2000, a possible indication of a troubling pattern of impunity for cops who misbehave.

One repeater, Chicago police Cmdr. Glenn Evans, was indicted in September and charged with aggravated battery and official misconduct for allegedly shoving his gun down a man’s throat last year. DNA recovered from the gun was crucial to his indictment. Numerous complaints had been filed against Evans over the years.

 

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