Mar 8, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Convicting police officers is rare — even when caught on video

Animated illustration of a policeman's fists with handcuffs that fade until they disappear

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's trial for the murder of George Floyd stands out because it's so rare for officers to face any charges for deadly force — even for actions caught on video. But advocates hope times are changing.

Why it matters: Nearly a year after a video of Floyd's choking death went viral, advocates have pushed through proposals in states and cities to make it easier to hold police officers accountable for excessive force. The plans still face resistance from police unions.

Driving the news: The House voted 220 to 212 last week to pass a policing bill named after Floyd that would overhaul qualified immunity for police officers, bans chokeholds at the federal level, prohibits no-knock warrants in federal drug cases, and outlaws racial profiling.

  • It would still need to pass the Senate before it could get to President Biden's desk. The White House says he supports it.
  • Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently signed a bill that also bans chokeholds, requires all police officers in the state to wear body cameras by 2025, and restricts officers' ability to pursue fleeing suspects.
  • Texas and New Mexico lawmakers are debating bills that would call for sweeping changes in policing.
  • Proponents say the changes would make it more likely that officers would face criminal charges for excessive force.

The details: Current state and federal laws protect officers from facing criminal charges for excessive force because of high legal standards to pursue cases. Local district attorneys also typically put up lukewarm prosecutions.

  • Critics say these systems allow troubled officers, from Albuquerque to Los Angeles, to escape prison time for constitutional rights violations and further build distrust.
  • One exception: In 2019, Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor was convicted of third-degree murder for fatally shooting a woman who had called 911 to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her home.
  • An appeals court ruling issued late Friday opened the door to Chauvin facing a similar charge in Floyd’s killing.

The other side: Police unions argue that discipline for officers should be negotiated during collective bargaining agreements, and have fought efforts to lower legal standards that would allow officers to face charges.

  • That view has support among Republicans in Congress. “As officers put their lives on the line to protect all of us, our communities, and our families, we have seen nothing but dangerous attempts from the left to defund, dismantle and disband the police,” said Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.).
  • Critics of some of the new proposals say the measures would push officers out of the field.

Yes, but: Retired San Diego County Sheriff's commander David Myer said changes are needed to a criminal justice system that prevents abusive officers from paying for crimes.

  • "The system is corrupt. It's born out of racism. It is fostered and it is lived out of racism."
  • Lorenzo M. Boyd, a former sheriff's deputy and University of New Haven vice president of diversity and inclusion, said it's "funny to see the people with the most power, claiming that they are the victims, when all we're doing is holding them accountable."
  • "There are some people that are so used to privilege that equality feels like oppression."

Flashback: Thirty years ago last week, four Los Angeles police officers were recorded beating Black motorist Rodney King following a traffic stop. A jury failed to convict the officers, sparking a six-day riot in Los Angeles.

  • In 2010, a dashcam recorded Seattle police officer Ian Birk shooting Nuu-chah-nulth tribal member and woodcarver John T. Williams four times after yelling at him to drop a knife. Williams was deaf in one ear. The shooting was ruled "unjustified," but Birk was not prosecuted.
  • In 2014, Albuquerque police were recorded fatally shooting James Boyd, a homeless camper with mental illness who was surrendering after a standoff. The shooting generated violent protests. Two officers were tried in Boyd's killing but were acquitted.

The big question: Richard Frase, a professor of criminal law at the University of Minnesota Law School, said officers in some of these cases can make a plausible claim of self-defense. The George Floyd case could be different.

  • "This case has nothing to do with self-defense. That is clearly not at all plausible defense. It's use of force to complete an arrest."
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