A special investigation by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review found that over the past 20 years federal prosecutors have cleared police officers of wrongdoing in 96% of civil rights violation cases.
After combing through 3 million files on the Justice Department’s investigation of police misconduct from 1995 to 2015 compiled from Ferguson, Missouri, Chicago, New York City, as well as hundreds of smaller towns that don’t make the headlines, the Tribune found that 12,703 of the total 13,233 complaints were turned down mainly due to insufficient evidence or lack of willful intent.
The legal standard for convicting a cop for a civil rights violation is nearly impossible to meet. Back in 1945, the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement officers could only be convicted of civil rights violations if the officer willfully violated rights.
“The standard is high and challenging,” said Alan Vinegrad, a former federal prosecutor from the Eastern District of New York. “It’s got to be a willful deprivation of rights, meaning the police officer intended and wanted to either kill or injure the person. Not just ‘it was reckless or negligent’ or anything like that.”
Such standards explain why cases like the killing of Dontre Hamilton by officer Christopher Manney in Milwaukee are dismissed, despite that officer being fired for the stop-and-frisk of the same man. Officer Manney stopped Hamilton, a diagnosed schizophrenic, and frisked him from behind causing Hamilton to grab the officer’s hands. In the scuffle, Hamilton grabbed Manney’s baton and swung at him, at which point Manney drew his gun and fired, emptying the clip.
The department ruled that Manney’s shooting of Hamilton was justified by self-defense but determined that Manney’s initial stop of Hamilton violated department policy thus leading to his termination. The department’s harsher sanctions for rules of engagement compared to sanctions for murder show that the police value small bureaucratic legal structures over the protection of life.
The legal standard is based on dated concepts of racism that construe it as an individual bias and fails to account for systemic racism embedded within the culture of certain institutions, like the police department. This standard doesn’t account for neighborhood segregation, poverty, and historical discrimination that leads to disproportionate numbers of blacks living in an environment where they will have increased contact with the police compared to white citizens. The very nature of police work involves creating stock profiles to recognize common criminal traits. Therefore, prosecutors do not hear cases that deal with issues of drug use and homelessness, under the assumption that such cases are fair given that people of all races commit these crimes.
This report comes days after a US attorney refused to bring charges against NYPD officer Richard Haste for fatally shooting unarmed black teenager Ramarley Graham in his apartment. Haste chased Graham into his home without a warrant on suspicion of possession of marijuana, then fatally shot him as he stood in the bathroom.
Despite the obvious excessive use of force and unreasonable tactics, there is no evidence that Haste willfully targeted Graham because he is black. By police language, Graham was targeted for suspicion of possession of marijuana, a criminal offense at the time. Yet, through this colorblind lens, the police fail to see how the people they target for such crimes are predominately black and Latino. By operating in this way, the police systematically oppressing entire communities of color in a fashion that represents Jim Crow-era practices without stated overtly racist intentions.
If this is standard policing procedure, maybe the Justice Department should understand the implicit biases of systemic racism that underline the very foundation of the practice by examining the work within a larger context. If it doesn’t, it sends the message to families of color across the country who have lost loved ones to racialized police violence that their lives don’t matter.
This investigation does bode well for upcoming Justice Department cases such as the killing of Eric Garner by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in Staten Island in 2014. Officers approached Garner on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes and when he refused to cooperate, Pantaleo brought Garner to the ground in a chokehold. Garner gasped “I can’t breathe” eleven times before succumbing to suffocation. Though video evidence shows the officer committing the act, it was done without provable racial malice. Pantaleo was cleared by a New York grand jury in 2014.
(Inset from the New York Daily News. All pictured were killed by New York City Police Officers, all of whom were cleared of civil rights charges, pending the investigation of the cop who killed Eric Garner, center.)