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“The Deck Is Stacked In Favor Of The Police”: Given Every Benefit Of The Doubt, Which Rarely Happens In Other Criminal Cases

Once more a police officer is not being held legally accountable for a killing. There are so many instances of this. Earlier this year, two Fullerton, Calif., police officers were found not guilty of all charges in the killing of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Medical records show that bones in his face were broken and he choked on his own blood; the compression of his thorax by the police made it impossible for Thomas to breath and deprived his brain of oxygen.

In the wake of the grand jury’s choice to not indict the Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson, the question must be asked as to why so often juries, and grand juries, rule in favor of the police, even when there is strong evidence of police misconduct. With a videotape of a savage beating, a California jury acquitted the four officers who beat Rodney King and a subsequent federal court jury acquitted two of them.

It is only when police officers are being investigated that the criminal justice system seems to operate most like it is supposed to in protecting the rights of suspects. Grand juries are meant to be a check on prosecutors. But in reality grand juries usually do whatever prosecutors want and generally are presented only evidence supporting an indictment. In Ferguson, however, the prosecutor presented all of the evidence and deferred entirely to the grand jury.

There is supposed to be a presumption of a defendant’s innocence in every criminal investigation. All too often, though, prosecutors and judges and even juries act with the assumption of a defendant’s guilt. By contrast, when the defendant is a police officer, there is a strong presumption of innocence. There is great deference to the split-second decisions of the officer in the field, even when the force seems clearly excessive. The officer is given every benefit of the doubt, which rarely happens in other criminal cases.

The problem is that the law gives too much deference to police conduct and does not do nearly enough to hold the police accountable. This also is true when police are sued by victims for money damages in civil court. A number of legal rules make it very difficult for victims of police abuse to successfully sue.

The events in Ferguson have focused national attention on the problem of excessive police force. It must be a catalyst for a careful analysis of why the legal system fails to achieve justice for victims of the police and how to correct it.


By: Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and The Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment law at The University of California, Irvine, School of Law; Room for Debate, The New York Times, November 26, 2014

November 30, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Ferguson Missouri, Law Enforcement | , , , , , , | 6 Comments


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