On Monday evening, a grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson, Mo. Police Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown. Since the day of the shooting in August, the incident has sparked worldwide outrage about the treatment of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement. “[Brown’s death has triggered a national conversation about] the appropriate use of force and the need to ensure fair and equal treatment for everyone who comes into contact with the police,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in August.
Yet, a grand jury comprised of residents of St. Louis County decided not to charge Wilson for Brown’s death. For many, the decision was a surprise—Brown was unarmed and bystanders reported him holding his hands in the air at the time he was shot. However, this decision should have been expected. Thanks to a combination of how U.S. culture views police officers and a Supreme Court decision from the late 1980s, police officers are rarely hit with criminal charges for killing people on the job.
In research detailed to Talking Points Memo, a professor at Bowling Green State University noted that, between 2005 and 2011, there were four arrests per year of police officers in United States for intentionally shooting someone while on duty. FBI figures for that same timeframe put the total number of people fatally shot by police at around 385 per year.
Contrast that figure to how grand juries function when the defendants in the case are civilians rather than police officers. As FiveThirtyEight notes, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases before grand juries in 2010, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics figures. Those grand juries returned indictments in all but 11 cases.
One of the main reasons for the disinclination of juries, both grand and petite, to throw the book at police officers largely stems back to the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in the case of Graham v. Connor, in which the nation’s highest court held that the actions of police officers should be judged based on how they appeared to the officer in the moment rather than in hindsight.
Basically, if a police officer feels threatened, he or she is essentially given broad leeway to use force, no matter the reality of the situation.
The incident at the center of Graham v. Connor started when 39-year-old diabetic Dethorne Graham started having an insulin reaction and asked a friend to drive to him a local convenience store to get some orange juice to stabilize his blood sugar levels. Once there, Graham ran in and grabbed a bottle of orange juice. Seeing that the line to check out was long, he gave up, put the juice back on the shelf, and immediately ran back out of the store.
The police officer saw Graham run into and then right back out of the store and decided something was sketchy. The officer pulled over Graham’s friends’s car and demanded to know what was going on. Graham insisted he was having a medical emergency, but the officer claimed he was lying and went into the store to see if Graham had stolen anything. While the officer was in the store, Graham got out of the car and almost immediately passed out on the ground. A few other officers arrived on the scene, handcuffed Graham, accused him of lying about having a serious health emergency, and repeatedly smashed Graham’s head and torso into the side of cop car.
After they realized no crime had been committed, the officers drove Graham back to his house and left him lying bruised, bloodied, and unable to get up in his front yard.
Graham sued the police department and the officers involved. The case eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled against him. The court’s logic was that, since Graham’s medical condition made him appear as if her were a violent drunk, the officers involved were justified in responding to the level of threat they perceived.
Not that police officers mistaking illness for intoxication doesn’t happen with some regularity, but the long-term implications were far more far-reaching. The ruling set a precedent that gave law enforcement officers wide discretion in taking virtually any action that could make sense in the moment.
“The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene,” noted chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the majority in Graham, “rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
This standard has since become the minimum for assessing the actions of a police officer. The Los Angeles jury that delivered the verdict that kicked off the 1992 L.A. riots was instructed to use the standard set by Graham as a guide for its rationale.
And that’s one of the main reasons why Darren Wilson didn’t suffer any legal consequences for killing an unarmed African-American teenager.
Even so, it’s not as if Graham completely changed the way the American public thinks about the actions of law enforcement. A study conducted in 1979 looked at a random sample of 1,500 police killings and found that only three of the officers involved were convicted on criminal charges.
Most Americans understand that police are often put in life-or-death situations and are forced to make split-second decisions without knowing all the facts. As a result, police are often given the benefit of the doubt.
At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the racial aspects of the decision. Wilson is a member of Ferguson’s overwhelmingly white police force and Brown was part of the city’s primarily African-American population.
Nationally, there is a major discrepancy in the way whites and non-whites view Wilson’s actions. A recent CNN poll found that 54 percent of non-whites—a group that includes blacks, Latinos, and Asians—believe Wilson should be charged with murder, while only 23 percent of whites feel the same way.
While the racial breakdown of the grand jury, three blacks and nine whites, is relatively close to the overall demographics of St. Louis County, the town of Ferguson, where the shooting occurred, is over two-thirds African-American.
Update 10:15pm CT, Nov. 24: The story has been updated to include information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Photo via Jamelle Bouie/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)