A protester speaks to a police officer on August 19.
Why few police shootings lead to indictments
02:12 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

No national database exists on police killings and whether officers are charged

A 1994 federal law called for the creation of annual database on excessive use of force

A pilot study found that creating a U.S. database would take a decade and cost $1 billion

Nonetheless, researchers and activists are calling for database on police force

CNN  — 

As a Missouri grand jury nears a decision on whether to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, some people seethe with suspicion that, in the end, nothing will happen.

On the street where Wilson killed teenager Michael Brown and in surrounding neighborhoods, many say the officer won’t be indicted because, they contend, cops rarely are.

“After what I witnessed from the 40 years I’ve been in St Louis, I would say I don’t think there will be an indictment,” protester Larry Miller said. “I consider the killing of Michael Brown a modern-day lynching.”

Conventional wisdom says it’s unusual for an officer to be charged in a suspect’s killing. In reality, it’s hard to get to the bottom of the issue because no official survey tracks officer-involved killings and why an officer is or isn’t charged in the aftermath.

“Nobody has that data,” said criminologist Philip Stinson of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who studies allegations of crimes by police. “It’s not on any form that’s required.”

Information on how frequently a department uses force – deadly or otherwise – is deemed by experts as key in building public trust, and such data could help defuse suspicions seen in communities such as Ferguson.

The tensions in that city are heightened by the fact that Wilson, who is white, shot an unarmed black teen, Brown. Wilson’s defenders say he acted in self-defense. They wear the legend “I am Darren Wilson” on T-shirts and wristbands.

Brown’s backers cite witness accounts contending Brown had his hands up when the fatal bullets hit him. “The whole damn system is guilty as hell!” protesters chanted in a recent faceoff with shield-toting officers.

Missing check box

Cold, hard stats will hardly assuage the pain of families whose loved ones were killed when police used force.

Whatever the total number may be, just one killing can devastate a community and its police force, as in Ferguson.

At its core, the issue highlights the most powerful act that an officer, or anyone else, can do: To end someone’s life.

From the officer’s side of the gun, numbers may not paint the complete picture of how cops put themselves in harm’s way daily on behalf of the public. They, too, get killed in the line of duty.

Some police departments do provide figures on the use of force, but the sample does not constitute a national portrait, experts say.

The problem begins with police reports: They don’t contain a check box to indicate whether someone who has been arrested is an officer, for example.

“There’s nothing in any of those systems where you would put down that a cop got arrested,” Stinson said.

This void exists despite the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. It requires the government to keep “data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers” and “an annual summary of the data.”

Federal study: No excessive force in 99.6% of calls

Such a database was deemed unfeasible, according to researchers of a pilot study that the federal government funded after the law’s passage.

The pilot study also found that police rarely used excessive force between 1991 and 2000, despite the severe 1991 beating by Los Angeles police of Rodney King, which was captured on video and played and replayed on television screens across the United States.

Unlike the teen in the Ferguson case, King recovered from his injuries. The grand jury in King’s case indicted four officers in the beating, but three were acquitted and the fourth officer’s case ended in mistrial in 1992 – which incited riots in Los Angeles far more severe than Ferguson’s violent protests. The riots left more than 50 people dead.

Now the nation wonders whether Ferguson will erupt in chaos, too, if the Missouri grand jury doesn’t indict Wilson. As it turned out in the King case, the four officers were later indicted again, on alleged federal civil rights violations. Two were convicted, and the other two were acquitted. No public disturbances followed that verdict. In the Ferguson case, a federal civil rights inquiry also is under way.

For all the attention Rodney King’s beating received, however, the federal pilot study, published in 2001, found that “excessive force was not used in 99.583% of all reported cases.”

Police firing more than 40 bullets

When civilians die or become injured at the hands of police, controversy arises, even in cases where charges did result.

For example, in 1999, four plainclothes New York officers fired 41 shots at unarmed Guinea immigrant Amadou Diallo, 22.

The officers in the special street crimes unit thought Diallo was reaching for a gun when it was really his wallet. They were charged but later acquitted of murder, and the U.S. Justice Department concluded it didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute the officers.

Diallo’s family later settled a wrongful death suit against the city for $3 million.

In 2012, police in Saginaw, Michigan, fired 46 bullets at a knife-wielding homeless man, Milton Hall, 49, in a parking lot next to a shuttered Chinese restaurant, in full view of passing motorists. A video of the incident was obtained by CNN weeks later, and a controversy arose over why officers fired so many shots at Hall, who was just a few yards away.

None of the officers was charged, and the U.S. Justice Department decided against pursuing federal criminal civil rights charges.

“It’s a tough job”

When a police officer does come under scrutiny after using force, a variety of factors can make prosecution unlikely.

For one thing, indicting an officer is difficult because the law lets police use increasing levels of force to protect his or her life and that of the public, legal experts say.

Prosecutors also may be keenly aware that jurors –and potential jurors – may likely trust an officer’s version of events, said criminal defense attorney Page Pate of Atlanta, who has represented several officers in excessive force cases.

“They know it’s a tough job,” Pate said. “And they put themselves in the shoes of the officer, and they say, ‘Look, I don’t want to be in that position. We trust you to do the right thing.’

“Once the jurors hear from the officer, and if they believe that officer, and if his explanation makes sense, they’re going to defer to him,” he said.

Elected prosecutors must walk a line when investigating a cop. On one hand, they have a close relationship with police. On the other hand, they must be responsive to constituents, and sometimes those constituents want an officer to be arrested after a suspect’s death.

“The prosecutor can be impartial, but in the real world, it can be difficult at times,” said Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations.

Police agencies, meanwhile, investigate thoroughly any time an officer uses force that hurts or kills a civilian, they say.

Also, in 49 of 50 states, a licensing commission regulates police officers’ credentials. Those commissions can and do review officer conduct, Johnson said.

“Every cop out there has to assume they are being watched or recorded, and there are dozens of iPhones available on any city block,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s fair for critics to say that officers are trying to hide stuff. That belief went out with Rodney King that force is not going to be noticed.”

Biggest study drew responses from a fraction of agencies

The 1991-2000 pilot study was the “most significant use-of-force study ever done,” said John Firman, director of research for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which authored the report.

Only a fraction of the nation’s law agencies participated, however.

In all, it reviewed 45 million police calls and 177,000 use-of-force incidents; it found that police used force at a rate of 3.61 times per 10,000 calls for service.

Six officers, all men, died in using firearms between 1995 and 2000, the study found.

During the same period, 17 suspects died when police used physical force or firearms, the study said.

The report cost $2.5 million and took three years to complete. Even then, the study secured responses from only 564 of the nation’s 18,000 law agencies, Firman said.

To continue for all law agencies “would have taken a decade and cost a billion dollars,” Firman said.

The numbers

The FBI says there were an average of about 400 “justifiable homicides” a year by law officers in the line of duty between 2008 and 2012.

In his own research, Bowling Green State University’s Stinson has documented 31 cases where a state and local officer was arrested for an on-duty, gun-related murder or non-negligent manslaughter from 2005 to 2011. He found 10 other cases in that time where an officer was arrested for negligent manslaughter in a gun-related incident that happened while the officer was on duty.

His analysis relies on news accounts and court records – not formal federal statistics.

Overall, Stinson said, he identified 5,545 officers as being arrested on a variety of charges. Roughly 765,000 sworn officers work for state and local police forces in the United States.

“So it’s a small number,” Stinson said. “I think these arrests are a very small fraction of the firearm shooting cases by police officer of citizens.”

One attempt for a public database

The website Fatal Encounters was created by a Nevada journalist devoted to crowd-sourced “data about people killed by police” since 2000.

So far, the website has collected 2,476 confirmed instances of officer-involved killings deemed justified or suspicious, but even those statistics are “barely scratching the surface,” said D. Brian Burghart, the website’s founder and editor of the weekly newspaper Reno News and Review.

“It only gets talked about when there’s a street riot or when somebody brings it to the media’s attention,” Burghart said of officer-involved killings. “Due to things like social media, I think the public is much more aware that this (shortage of data) is an issue.”

“The new civil right”

On behalf of many individuals killed by police, Pamela Meanes leads the National Bar Association’s “War on Police Brutality” and is targeting 25 cities and 25 states with open records requests – seeking the number of unarmed individuals who have been killed or injured by police or while in custody.

She calls her efforts “the new civil right.”

“I think there’s a (data) gap because people don’t recognize that this is an epidemic in the country,” said Meanes, who heads the nation’s oldest and largest group of African-American lawyers. “It”s not a black and white issue. It’s a blue issue.”

Meanes contends that charges against an officer are rare because of what she calls “vague” standards on justifiable and excessive force.

“The law says that an officer has the authority to elevate that level of force to protect his life, and that is arbitrary and capricious,” Meanes said.

Her group is pushing federal legislation to define better the acceptable and excessive use of police force.

“Every officer is not bad,” she said. “This is not a war on police departments. This is an effort to get rid of bad police officers – just like we want to get rid of bad lawyers.”

Complete coverage on Ferguson

CNN’s Sara Sidner contributed to this report.