Rarely a day passes when we do not hear about an apparently unjustified -- or at least questionable -- police shooting in California and across the country. But the reality is that it is very rare for police officers who shoot and kill someone to ever be held criminally accountable for their actions, even in cases where civil juries later decide that the police shootings were unjustified, wrongful and in violation of the victims' civil rights.
According to an in-depth investigative article on police shootings by kpcc Southern California Public Radio, at least 375 people were shot by police officers in Los Angeles County between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2014. Yet none of those officers was ever criminally prosecuted. It is so unusual for a police officer to ever be held criminally accountable for his or her harmful actions that LAPD chief Charlie Beck recently made waves when he recommended one of his officers be criminally prosecuted for fatally shooting a homeless man in Venice Beach.
The problem is one of conflict of interest. Local prosecutors work hand-in-hand with police officers and police agencies on a daily basis and rely on them to help win their cases. Whatever their intentions, it is very difficult for these same prosecutors to turn around and investigate and prosecute the very officers and agencies they otherwise rely on and collaborate with.
One solution to this problem is the use of independent prosecutors to handle police shooting cases. The hope is that a prosecutor who is not aligned with the agency that employs the officer will be more objective in making the determination as to whether the police officer broke the law in doing the shooting and whether he or she should be prosecuted for a crime such as murder or manslaughter. It is imperative that we have impartiality in police shooting cases because we have a legal system that is based on the rule of law and that means that everyone is treated equally in the eyes of the law. Our system cannot work if some people, like police officers, get away with perpetrating criminal activity while others do not.
Some states are heeding the call for justice when it comes to independent prosecutions of police shootings. The New York governor has passed an executive order giving jurisdiction over police killings of unarmed civilians to the Attorney General's Office. Connecticut and Wisconsin also have laws regarding independent police prosecutions.
On the federal level, Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Congressman Lacy Clay (D-MO) have introduced the Police Training and Independent Review Act, which would withhold federal funding for law enforcement unless independent prosecutors are used for cases in which police shootings resulted in death or injury.
California could do more in this area. The Attorney General's Office has jurisdiction to handle police shootings, but so far Attorney General Kamala Harris has expressed reticence at exercising that authority.
Civil rights lawsuits cannot substitute for criminal prosecutions of police officers who shoot and kill civilians in a manner that rises to the level of criminal conduct. The criminal justice system must apply equally to all offenders. The families of victims of police shootings can never begin to heal or feel any semblance of justice when a double standard applies to the person who shot and killed their loved one. Moreover, we cannot hope to reduce or eliminate bad police shootings if the offenders are consistently let off the hook for them.