Home / #Solutions / New Study Shows Even If Cops Commit a Crime on Video, 96% of the Time they Aren’t Prosecuted

New Study Shows Even If Cops Commit a Crime on Video, 96% of the Time they Aren’t Prosecuted


Police in the United States managed to escape prosecution when facing allegations they violated civil rights an incredible 96 percent of the time. This is almost the exact opposite of the conviction rate for everyone else, as normal citizens are are prosecuted at a rate of 93 percent.

The investigation by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (the Trib), based on an analysis of nearly 3 million federal records, found that from 1995 through 2015, federal prosecutors overwhelmingly opted not to pursue prosecution. Indeed, the 96 percent refusal to press charges sharply contrasts with the rejection rate for all other complaints — just 23 percent.

Investigators found the most common reasons given for refusing to prosecute officers were “weak or insufficient evidence, lack of criminal intent required under a 1945 Supreme Court ruling standard, and orders from the Justice Department.”

In response to the Trib’s study, Justice Dept. spokeswoman Dena Iverson said the DOJ takes “any allegation of law enforcement misconduct seriously and will review those allegations when they are brought to our attention.”

But the lopsided tendency for U.S. prosecutors to reject charging officers in civil rights cases could easily be seen as validation for outrage at what amounts to police impunity.

“It’s a difficult situation for the legal system in general,” Mel Johnson, assistant U.S. attorney for civil rights cases in Wisconsin’s Eastern District, told the Trib. “Federal and state governments have not succeeded in deterring police misconduct. I would say the legal system has a way to go.”

Prosecuting civil rights allegations is a tricky matter, in general, but the challenge to prove an officer acted “willfully,” which the Supreme Court ruled over 70 years ago, remains the greatest stumbling block.

“The standard is high and challenging,” said Alan Vinegrad, a former federal prosecutor in New York who oversaw civil rights cases. “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.”

Therein lies the most pertinent dilemma. Because the officer’s malintent must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, cases where judges find an officer unjustified in his or her use of force can’t necessarily be prosecuted as civil rights violations.

Questionable evidence also plays a role, particularly when various witness accounts of the same event differ.

As Craig Futterman, a law professor and founder of Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago, points out, juries have a bias toward police officers — evidenced by reluctance or failure to convict — so prosecutors must factor in that tendency when deciding if charges will be fruitful.

Law enforcement unions argue police wouldn’t be able to do their job if they feared acting as they feel appropriately might cause them to be charged with a crime.

Tim Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, described another, more telling, bias:

“There’s first of all the general reluctance on the part of prosecutors to go after people in law enforcement because they consider themselves all working on the same team.”

As some experts the Trib consulted for its investigation explained, one solution would involve lesser options than prison to increase accountability, while balancing law enforcement’s concern about effectively doing their jobs. Others, like Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, have argued that mandating police to have liability or similar insurance — making them accountable via their bank accounts — might be the best option.

“This is an area, quite honestly, where the feds need to be bolder and put greater resources in,” Futterman explained. “Indeed, the failure to aggressively bring those cases has allowed too many abusive officers to believe that they can operate without fear of punishment.”

As the Trib summarized, “Even with video or other strong evidence, the defense can argue the officer believed the dead person was armed or was a threat, or the officer had only a split-second to make a decision.”

Just about everyone is familiar with the effectiveness of that argument — I thought my life was in danger.

  • Cam Alft

    cops are criminals…..period.

  • Edward Drew

    “Just about everyone is familiar with the effectiveness of that argument — I thought my life was in danger.”
    Except the argument has always been “I feared for my life!”
    Yes they fear Cell Phones & broomsticks & Pointed fingers!

  • Gus Firchow

    “Indeed, the failure to aggressively bring those cases has allowed too many abusive officers to believe that they can operate without fear of punishment.”

    This may sound extreme but history has shown this is how Nazi Germany started.

    When bad cops are caught and convicted, it’s the taxpayers who suffer.

    Make every cop accountable for their actions. Stop protecting their pensions.

    When convicted of abuse, fire them and don’t allow these thugs with guns to work in law enforcement ever again.

  • anarchyt

    Ever notice that police unions are “fraternal”? This should tell you something. The “thin-blue-line” is a gang, little different than street gangs–at least when it comes to “covering-up” questionable behavior by police.
    In today’s day and age, “officer safety” trumps de-escalation of force. This, in part, is due to the militarization of the police along with training in Israeli police tactics. This becomes a problem, with the “us vs. them” attitude that is fosters, along with the fact that Israel is a very different place, being on a constant “war footing”, and by necessity, its police tactics are very different.
    There are too many instances of police being “given a pass”, even when incontrovertible video and audio evidence is presented. Grand juries, guided by police-friendly prosecutors, quite often refuse to charge those police officers who abuse their authority.
    Police officers, who want to do the right thing, are quite often marginalized and put into harms way, by their own brethren…When a police officer is beating on someone that is already restrained while yelling, “stop resisting” THAT is but one reason police have a “bad name” in many instances…
    Here are changes that can help reduce the police-induced violence:
    1. Eliminate both “absolute” and “qualified” immunity for all public officials. The threat of being sued personally would encourage them to behave themselves.
    2. Any public funds disbursed to citizens as a result of police misconduct should come out of their pension funds–NOT from the taxpayers.
    3. Regular drug-testing of police officers as well as incident-based drug testing should take place whenever an officer is involved in a violent situation with a citizen–no exceptions.
    4. Testing for steroid use should be a part of the drug testing program. You know damn well, many police officers “bulk up” with the “help” of steroids. Steroids also affect users mentally as well, making them more aggressive. The potential for abuse of citizens increases greatly with steroid use.
    5. Internal affairs should only be used for disagreements between individual officers–NOT for investigations involving citizen abuse. State-level investigations should be mandatory for all suspected abuses involving citizens.
    6. Prosecutors should be charged with malfeasance IF any evidence implicating police officer misconduct is not presented to the grand jury.
    7. A national or state-by-state database of abusive individuals who should NEVER be allowed to perform police work should be established–a “blacklist” of abusive (former) police officers.
    8. Get rid of police unions. Police unions (fraternities) protect the guilty, and are responsible for the massive whitewashing of questionable police behavior that is presently being committed.
    9. Most people are unaware that police have special “rules” that prohibit them from being questioned for 48 hours. This allows them to “get their stories straight” and makes it easier to “cover up” bad police behavior. Police must be subject to the same laws as civilians.
    10. All police should be required to wear bodycams and utilize dashcams that cannot be turned off. Any police officers who causes a dash or body cam to be turned off should be summarily fired–no excuses. Today’s body and dash cams are reliable enough to withstand harsh treatment. Body and dashcam footage should be uploaded to a public channel “on the cloud” for public perusal.
    11. All interrogations must be video and audio recorded. Police should be prohibited from lying or fabricating stories in order to get suspects to confess. False confessions ARE a problem in many departments. Unknown to most people, police can lie with impunity while civilians can be charged with lying to police…fair? I think not…
    12. Any legislation passed that restricts the rights of ordinary citizens, such as firearms magazine capacity limits, types of weapons allowed, or restrictive concealed-carry laws should apply equally to police. No special exemptions to be given to police. Laws must be equally applied.
    Police work is not inherently dangerous…there are many other professions that are much more dangerous.
    A little “Andy Taylor” could go a long way in allaying fears that citizens have of police.
    That being said, I have no problem with police officers who do their job in a fair, conscientious manner…however, it is time to call to task those police officers who only “protect and serve” themselves

    • pshaman

      You, sir, are an idiot. The Utopia you dream of would quickly become a Dystopia under your rules. The first time you were personally impacted by a criminal would have you screaming for the “good ol’ days” to see him captured and brought to justice. You are completely unrealistic and unfettered by experience. What a dilettante!

      • anarchyt

        All of my proposals make sense. Your name-calling exposes you as a small-minded individual. You must be a cop or a cop bootlicker.

      • anarchyt

        For one, I would NEVER call a cop for assistance. I am the “first responder” in any situation…

  • Snowden

    I don’t know the bad cops from good cops these days. They will lie about anything to save there own . They are a gang of there own . That’s just my opinion.

  • Ed Martin

    “The whole Good Cop / Bad Cop question can be disposed of much more decisively. We need not enumerate what proportion of cops appears to be good or listen to someone’s anecdote about his uncle Charlie, an allegedly good cop.

    We need only consider the following:

    (1) A cop’s job is to enforce the laws, all of them;
    (2) Many of the laws are manifestly unjust, and some are even cruel and wicked;
    (3) Therefore every cop has to agree to act as an enforcer for laws that are manifestly unjust or even cruel and wicked.

    There are no good cops.”

    — Robert Higgs

  • LawrenceNeal

    The whole system sucks. The only option is to withdraw from it.

  • MarlboroStan

    Know what bugs me? The argument appears to be that in a split second, its impossible to make the WRONG decision. They always say the cop had a split second to make a decision. Which seems to suggest a split second decision is always the right decision. When in fact, its entirely possible to make the WRONG split second decision.

  • John

    The problem is quite clearly, a lack of equal application of the law. Police should be no less vigorously prosecuted as the average citizen… this simply isn’t the case, and that is wrong. Either prosecutors need to be more lenient and judges and grand juries more demanding of the cases presented to them in the case of civilians, or they need to be much, much less lenient and judges and grand juries far less demanding of evidence of the commission of a crime when it comes to law enforcement officers.

  • accorn

    The police are in bed with the judges and prosecutors, and federal investigators. The system is so corrupt that probably nothing can reform it. It’s government tyranny, just like the founding fathers warned you all about.