Why are police so rarely found guilty of killing civilians?

An expert explains


This week, a South Carolina jury failed to convict Officer Michael Slager in the killing of Michael Scott.

The judge declared a mistrial after one vote hung the jury – meaning they could not return a guilty verdict to convict Slager should of murder or voluntary manslaughter, after video footage showed him shooting Scott in the back.

To some, it looks like Slager’s trial was just another example of a white officer killing an unarmed black civilian and seemingly getting away with it.

But is there a reason for this? How could an officer not end up with a charge, even with what seems to be blindingly-clear evidence?

We asked Tom Nolan, a Criminology professor at Merrimack and 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department, to find out more.

How can officers like Michael Slager avoid conviction?

There are several issues at stake – first is the secrecy involved in a grand jury, and the fact it’s exclusively controlled by the prosecutor. So there’s no defense attorney, there’s no cross-examination, there’s no defendant present. The only people present are the grand jurors and the prosecutor, and the various witnesses who the prosecutor chooses to call. The direction of the grand jury proceeding is entirely under the control of the prosecutor. Whether or not an indictment is to be obtained is largely up to the prosecutor. He recommends to the jurors, either you indict or you do not indict.

In cases involving police officers and the use of deadly force, we have repeatedly seen the grand jury process fail to indict police officers and give the veneer of legitimacy to the process.

Another issue that is confounding is even when police officers are charged, and we’ll use the cause of Officer Michael Slager in South Carolina, people who serve on juries will typically give the benefit of the doubt to the police officer. People are under the impression that policing is an extremely dangerous occupation where officers are confronted by violent situations on a daily basis. This simply isn’t the case. This is largely a construction of popular culture and the media.

So people who serve on juries are under the impression that police are constantly called upon to make split-second life and death decisions, and if an error is made, it is a good faith error on the part of the police officer, and the benefit of the doubt should go to the officer. That’s what we saw in South Carolina, where one juror in an almost all-white jury was successful in hanging the jury. The judge was forced to declare a mistrial. The prosecutor has vowed to try Slager again, but no-one who comments on these issues would be surprised if a similar result occurs at the next trial.

It’s an uphill battle for any prosecutor to successfully convict, let alone indict, a police officer in a wrongful death situation. And then you have this other issue and that’s the close, collaborative relationship between country prosecutors and police agencies. These are law enforcement officials who work hand-in-hand on a daily basis. To expect that a county prosecutor is going to criminally charge that police officer is not reality. It’s not realistically going to happen. You have this incestuous relationship between police departments and county prosecutors, that’s going to lead to a reluctance for them to move essentially against a colleague.

Also, officer-involved shootings are investigated by their own departments. So it’s fair to assume that police conducting an investigation of an officer is going to come down on the side of the fellow officer.

For people living in communities of color, the verdict in the Slager trial would not be a surprise. The surprise for people who I know living in communities of color is that white people would even be surprised in the first place. Because to these communities that have for generations been plagued by discriminatory practices on the part of police, by unnecessary use of force, by violence, by oppressive tactics and strategies – they’re surprised by none of this.

Do you think racial bias comes into these decisions?

Especially in a state like South Carolina, with its history – it’s where the civil war started to protect slavery. Only in the last couple of years have they stopped flying the Confederate Flag on the State Capitol. It should come as no surprise that this outcome occurred in the trial process, that there is a level of racial animus. In the mindset of people sitting on jury like this, they assume that an African American man or woman who has come into contact with the police, they’ve done something wrong. In the case of Walter Scott, he was in arrears on some child support. People will point to that and criminalize black men who come to an untimely end at the hands of the police. For instance they’ll say, Michael Brown was smoking marijuana he “robbed some store” where he robbed cigarettes – that’s criminalizing the victim. Asking why there were drugs in his system, or why he ran from the police, this is the perspective of white people, that all he had to do was stop, submit, comply. If he didn’t, that made him a criminal, and any outcome that is arrived at, including the use of excessive force, deadly force, is warranted and justified.

Walter Scott

Walter Scott

How do you think this will change in Trump’s America?

Going forward, I think the direction we have had of late, from Ferguson on, we had moved in a direction where we saw the militarization of the police become somewhat subdued, and to an extent, de-escalated. There was a federal court decision in New York City about the Stop and Frisk police there, ruling it unconstitutional. I hope I’m wrong, but I think after January 20th, we’re going to see a rollback of any kind of progressive policies and strategies that the police might have employed in the last couple of years. We’re going to return to the bad, not-so-old days. Particularly with the fraternal order of police, making a rather fortuitous decision, we’re going to see kindred spirits between the presidential administration and law enforcement, and that does not bode well for people who live and work in communities of color.