Opinion

Most Cops Don’t Get Convicted Of Killing For Good Reason

Ivan Kokoulin/shutterstock_638260507

Ron Hosko President, Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund

Pity New York Times writer Julie Bosman and her friends who can’t understand why video recordings in three recent police deadly force trials failed to result in cop convictions she and others had been hoping for.

Bosman, you may recall, was the reporter who, in the wake of overgrown teenager Michael Brown’s violent attack on Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, researched and published an article containing the street address and town where the threatened officer lived. Her ignorance and readiness to put Darren Wilson in a lynch mob’s crosshairs, along with the public rebuke of her folly including published reports with her own north Chicago home address, might suggest she has an ax to grind with law enforcement. Her June 25th NYT article is more proof.

In that piece, Bosman laments, “Each of these videos held an essential role in a courtroom this month, as jurors tried to decide whether the officers had committed crimes. Yet none of the cases brought convictions . . .”

That’s right – none of the three tried cops was convicted after the triers of fact – 12 member juries – heard and weighed all of the evidence in the cases and could not unanimously agree, beyond a reasonable doubt, the accused officers were guilty of the crimes charged.

The writer concedes but perhaps can’t understand, “But jurors, watching these images playing on projection screens in courtrooms, have not come away with simple answers.” On that point, she finds truth, one that too often evades her mainstream media sensibilities that inevitably lead to the desired conclusion that police were racist, corrupt, heavy-handed, out of control.

The reality of policing is, Ms. Bosman, things are often complex, not linear and given to simple answers or solutions. Citizen encounters that begin innocuously can quickly turn violent and tragic. There are too few “routine” encounters and far too many that punctuate daily police boredom with moments of terror. These tend to be the ones the mainstream media types like you tee up with anti-police catch phrases or one-sided videos replayed ad infinitum with little context or challenge about the citizen actions that served as a trigger.

One invaluable trait that no police academy either teaches or instills is omniscience. As a result, police officers are saddled with interpreting subtleties, nuance, misdirection and indicia of deceit and danger. And because those officers have a strong desire to go home safely at the end of their shift, they have a tendency to be direct, commanding, even demanding, fearing citizen intentions aren’t always benevolent.

When these elements are shaken and stirred during uncertain and rapidly changing street encounters, it’s actually understandable when the U. S. Supreme Court, in the seminal use of force decision of our time, Graham v. Connor (1989) cautioned against judging police through the lens of 20/20 hindsight. The Court reasoned that the evaluation must be “from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene” recognizing that “police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.”

The three recent court cases point to the very dynamic envisioned by the Court – where split-second decisions are an essential factor in the police response and determinations about the results of those decisions may be in the hands of a judge or jury months or years later.

What Bosman and her NYT pals may neither understand nor care about is that police officers have fears and involuntary reactions to fears just like others. Practice, repetition, training and experience may go a long way to managing those fears but quite often police responses to the sudden actions of a citizen are in fact reasonable under the circumstances.

Police on their guard isn’t irrational – tens of thousands of them are assaulted every year, dozens lose their lives in violent, deliberate attacks. And those deadly attacks have been on the rise since the day she published the name of the street and town where Ferguson officer Darren Wilson once lived. Cops across America know about those attacks and it influences how they perceive citizen encounters, for better or worse.

There are lots of good reasons cops don’t get charged or convicted after using deadly force in America. Very often it’s because of a fundamental lack of evidence to support those results. Sometimes it’s because of precisely what the Supreme Court spoke of – rapidly evolving, tense situations where there simply isn’t proof of bad intent beyond a reasonable doubt.

While Julie Bosman keeps hoping for cop convictions despite the facts, many Americans will ignore her bias to stand with the officers who put so much on the line every day.

Ron Hosko is a former FBI assistant director and current president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.