“It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by the police last week, last month, last year,” FBI Director James Comey said last spring. The lack of decent stats led both The Washington Post and The Guardian to mount data-collection efforts, and in December 2015, the FBI announced it would try to create a more effective data-gathering effort. That won’t start until 2017, though.
Okay. Well, in the meantime, prosecutors need to do a better job of holding police who break the law accountable through strict prosecution.
How much real ability do district attorneys and prosecutors have to solve the problem? Attempts to prosecute cops encounter a whole range of issues. It’s true that a vanishingly small number of deaths in police hands result in criminal charges, and a smaller number still result in convictions. (Of course, deaths are only a tiny share of cases where police are subject to allegations of misconduct. They’re just slightly easier to track.)
Because the police are essential to every criminal case—as witnesses and as investigators—a prosecutor who wants to go after a cop is risking alienating the very officers she relies on in every other case. Even setting all that aside, grand juries and juries alike are often reluctant to second-guess police and so decline to indict or convict. The Freddie Gray case, in which Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby aggressively pursued charges against police, is a cautionary tale. Though she won praise for bring charges, the first case resulted in a hung jury, and the rest are currently in limbo.
If local prosecutors are unwilling or unable to deliver accountability, then the Justice Department will have to be the enforcer.
Does the federal government intervening with local police departments provide a good path to reform? Yes and no. Justice Department lawsuits have forced police departments around the country to clean up their acts—from Seattle to Puerto Rico and Cleveland to New Orleans. The DOJ offers a great deal of heft, and while it’s certainly not immune to political pressures, it is insulated from local politics.
Justice Department lawsuits have their own limitations, though. While they have been praised for the their effectiveness in identifying systemic abuses—the DOJ investigation into the police in Ferguson, Missouri, was a stunning chronicle of malfeasance—they’re less effective at dealing with specific cases. Hopes that the DOJ would prosecute Officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown overlooked the high standards required for a federal civil-rights case. Even when DOJ is able to procure strong agreements, it sometimes finds itself returning again before too long when departments fail to clean up their acts. Meanwhile, the recent focus on police abuse has nearly overwhelmed the unit in charge of police accountability.