When Eric Garner died in 2014 after a New York City Police Department officer put him in a chokehold, the news went viral. He’d been accused of the heinous crime of selling single cigarettes. Garner told the NYPD officers who came to arrest him that he wasn’t selling cigarettes and was tired of the constant harassment.
Garner apparently did resist arrest to some degree, to the extent that when Officer Daniel Pantaleo attempted to put Garner’s arms behind his back to handcuff him, Garner pulled away. Pantaleo then put Garner in a chokehold and pushed him to the ground. Four additional officers moved in to restrain Garner, who was caught on video repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe.
Later, the medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide. The Staten Island grand jury refused to indict the officers, and federal officials announced they would conduct a civil rights investigation. It’s been almost four years, and nothing has been done.
While Garner’s case made international headlines, the time it takes for the feds to launch such investigations is par for the course for many families who have lost loved ones to alleged police brutality. While it’s not entirely accurate to say 100 hundred percent of civil rights allegations against law enforcement personnel aren’t pursued, it’s pretty darn close. The actual number is 96 percent.
There’s really no argument: Law enforcement officers are simply not held accountable for civil rights violations. During the 20-year period from 1995 to 2015, the feds only pursued such allegations four percent of the time.
For every other type of crime, the decision not to pursue was just 23 percent, not 96 percent. Why is the percentage so abysmal? The most often cited reasons are insufficient evidence, lack of “criminal intent” on the part of law enforcement officers, or the Justice Department ordering prosecutors not to go forward.
A 1945 Supreme Court decision upheld the ability of federal prosecutors to charge local police for civil rights deprivation, stating that prosecutors must prove police acted “willfully.” That means an officer intended to injure or kill a person, and it wasn’t a matter of recklessness. That’s a very high standard.
It’s not that the 94 U.S. Attorney’s offices don’t try. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office for Western Pennsylvania stated that files are opened for even the most minor accusations against law enforcement personnel, but it’s difficult to gather enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.
Undoubtedly, false accusations are also made against police officers, but the idea that 96 percent of such accusations don’t have merit simply defies reason.
There’s another reason for this appallingly low rate of federal prosecution of civil rights cases. There simply isn’t much pressure put on the feds to do more. At a recent police conference in Orlando, Florida, several chiefs of police responded similarly when asked about federal prosecution of civil rights cases.
While local politicians – who have constituents demanding action at public meetings, sending angry emails, or making phone calls wanting justice – must act and at least put on the appearance of trying to hold police officers accountable, there’s no such constituency on the federal level, and therefore no pressure. When federal charges are filed that four percent of the time, it’s often years after the fact.
The Blue Wall of Silence
Lastly, it’s remiss to ignore the impact of the blue wall of silence on these cases. Cops protect other cops, and they’re not going to cooperate with the feds. Even when there are videos of one officer beating a person, other cops present generally aren’t intervening.
In addition, the general lack of cooperation by other involved officers seriously impedes any investigation. Unfortunately, unless some type of public pressure is brought to bear, we can expect that 96 percent passive sanctioning of bad police behavior to remain the status quo.
Joseph Tully is a certified specialist in criminal law by the California state bar, and has been recognized as a Top 10 Criminal Defense Attorney by Attorney and Practice Magazine, one of an elite few having earned that designation. To connect with Joseph: [hidden email].