In the wake of the Michael Brown verdict, millions of people across the country no doubt are haunted by feelings of anger, disappointment and, above all, confusion. And it begs the question, “How often are policemen actually indicted for the homicides that they commit?” The answer? Almost never.
The law only keeps records of what they call “justifiable” homicides, a killing that is somehow permitted due to evidence, no matter how flawed or faulty.
Even as America’s national homicide rate continues to fall, the rate of “justifiable” homicides continues to rise. Last year, the FBI recorded 461 committed by law enforcement, which is the highest recorded number in two decades, according to thenation.com.
Homicides committed by on-duty law enforcement made up 3 percent of the 14,196 homicides committed in the United States in 2013. An average of about 96 police homicides a year involve a white officer killing a Black person, according to a study done by USA Today.
Before that, a report called “Operation Ghetto Storm” gathered information detailing that of the 739 “justified” shootings from 2007-2012, “313 of them were Black, 44 percent (136), were unarmed, 27 percent of them (83) were claimed by law enforcement to have a gun at the time of the shooting, but that could not be later confirmed or the ‘gun’ was in fact, a toy or other non-lethal object.”
In recent years, a group called the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement released a report in 2013 revealing that police officers, security guards or self-appointed vigilantes killed at least 313 African-Americans in 2012, a rate of one every 28 hours.
Because the FBI’s police homicide stats are collected from voluntary information given by police departments all over the country, it is only fair to be a bit wary of how many of the homicide are actually being reported.
One of the few recorded cases ABS could find of a police officer actually being charged for the killing of a Black man is that of Justin Craven and Ernest Satterwhite. The 68-year-old Black great-grandfather was shot on February 9 of this year when he parked in his driveway after a slow-speed chase by a 25-year-old white police officer in North Augusta, South Carolina, who repeatedly fired through the driver’s side door, according to AP.
The prosecution sought to charge Satterwhite with voluntary manslaughter, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. But the grand jury disagreed, indicting him on a misdemeanor, citing his use of excessive force and failure “to follow and use proper procedures.”
A study on actual police indictments was done back in 1979, according to talkingpointsmemo.com, and only found three convictions out of the 1,500 police killings it studied over a five-year period. And none of those were killings of Black men.
Tim Lynch, police brutality expert and writer of the National Police Misconduct Newsfeed Daily Recap for the CATO Institute, told Atlanta Blackstar there were four reasons why it is so hard to charge police officers:
1. Lack of independent witnesses from the scene. Too often it is the word of the officer against the person claiming misconduct.
2. Related to #1, blue wall of silence. Even if another officer sees wrongdoing, he/she is unlikely to blow the whistle. They don’t want to be a “rat.”
3. Prosecutors work with the police each week all year long. They rely on police work to do their job. They don’t want to go against the police and make them angry.
4. Jurors are reluctant to go against the police, ruin their careers, and maybe send them to prison”
The verdict of no indictment for Michael Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson, is upsetting and disheartening, but moving forward there are steps that can be taken to make sure that these kinds of homicides happen less and less, according to Lynch.
People need to “encourage ordinary people to use cell phone videos of police work (do not be hostile to it),” said Lynch. “Have police wear body cameras; when there are questionable shootings/instances of excessive force, have a separate, independent, agency investigate it; identify the officers involved in such incidents and seek to end the practice of secret settlements (lawsuits settled out of court and we don’t learn which officers were involved and what it is the victim said they did).”