The Stolen Lives Project determined that during the entire decade of the 1990’s, over 2000 deaths occurred at the hands of police officers. Seven years ago, a bureau of the U.S. Department of Justice released a similar report that focused only on the years 2003 thru 2005. That report indicated that over 2000 people died while being arrested by police officers during those three years alone, and that during each of those three years, the rate of such deaths increased by 13%. There is also myriad evidence to indicate that police officer deaths at the hands of suspects is increasing at an alarming rate; for example, the FBI determined that from 2007 to 2008, the rate of officer deaths at the hands of suspects jumped 25%.
Although evidence indicates that lethal interactions between police and suspects are increasing, and although it is increasingly common for federal prosecutors to criminally target officers, it is still, overall, exceptionally rare for criminal charges to be filed against police. Significant spikes in civil liability and lawsuits (i.e., New York, Las Vegas, Baltimore, Minneapolis) suggest that a closer look at police officers by prosecutors might be warranted.
When police officers are criminally charged, it is generally a shock to members of the community and it generates a huge media storm. Jonathan Ferrell, a 24-year-old former Florida A&M University football player was shot and killed by North Carolina police officer Randall Kerrick in September. While the police department initially defended its officer’s actions, it quickly turned around and charged him with voluntary manslaughter. Against the backdrop of the ongoing investigation, the Charlotte region is now engaged in a discussion that has also highlighted the broader issue of holding rouge police officers accountable.
Similar discussions surface throughout the country at times when an officer has been caught on camera engaging in particularly heinous behavior and yet goes on to be uncharged and undisciplined. Any public outcry over a lack of accountability, however, is generally isolated and unsustained. Consider the following sample of Twin Cities incidents from recent years: Jesse Zilge and Matthew Gorans, Sherry Appledorn, Derryl Jenkins (victim), Todd Lappegaard, Adam Bailey, DelShawn Crawford (victim). None of those officers were criminally charged, although their actions were all reviewed for criminal misconduct; and, all of them faded from the public conscience within days after the media coverage subsided.
Charging police officers when the officer is clearly out of bounds is a complicated matter. Due to legal protections such as qualified immunity, and due to conflict of interest issues that require charging consideration to be farmed out to other prosecuting agencies, the process of even considering whether to criminally charge police officers is much more onerous than charging a typical citizen. Overwhelmingly, officers who engage in conduct that would result in serious criminal charges for your average citizen continue to remain employed, undisciplined (even minor discipline is often reversed by union grievance), and uncharged.
A larger and more sustained effort needs to be made to demand that prosecuting agencies hold accountable officers who clearly violate the law and hurt/kill citizens. Until then, Randall Kerrick will remain a rare exception.