State Police officers stand guard during a protest against the grand jury decision not to indict an officer who used a fatal chokehold on an unarmed man. Photo: AFP

Police in the US rarely face criminal charges in fatal shootings

Grand juries tend to be less sympathetic to officers who have lied, tried to cover up their actions or used excessive force on someone


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 protesters took to the streets on Wednesday to decry 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 Charlotte-Mecklenburg officer for fatally shooting a former college football player who was knocking on doors looking for help after he drove his car off the road. 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 were perfectly 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 try 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.

When prosecutors do bring charges, they have often been linked to an attempt at a cover-up. That was the case with the death of Raymond Robair, a 48-year-old handyman who was fatally beaten on a New Orleans street in 2005.

The police officers who initially brought Robair to the hospital claimed they had found him beneath a bridge. In written reports, they described their encounter with Robair as a medical call.

But witnesses said one of the officers, Melvin Williams, had beaten the man with his baton. An autopsy concluded he died from a ruptured spleen. When interviewed by the FBI, Williams' rookie partner, Matthew Moore, claimed Robair had hurt himself when he fell down while trying to run away. Williams was eventually convicted and sentenced to more than 21 years in prison. Moore was sentenced to five years for conspiracy and lying to federal agents.

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.

McCoy said if policymakers really wanted to do something about fatal encounters between police and the public, charging more officers with crimes was not 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," he said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Police rarely charged in fatal shootings