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Why Cops Are Not Often Sentenced for On-Duty Homicides?


Claims of the police using excessive force when dealing with unarmed criminals are common in the United States. The increase in the number of homicides perpetrated by police officers in the line of duty has evoked great indignation across the country. The public demands that police officers are held accountable for their actions when they are on duty. In the United States, police are hardly prosecuted for on-duty homicides, in spite of the high number of murders that the law enforcement agents commit (Cooper 46). Numerous factors stop the judges from prosecuting officers who commit murder while on duty.

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The law gives police officers the right to use force whenever their life or the life of citizens is in danger. Besides, the public tends to side with police officers making it hard for the judges to make an informed judgment. The jury has to compete with social, institutional and legal hurdles to prosecute a police officer for on-duty homicide. This article will discuss the factors that make it difficult for the judges to sentence police who commit on-duty killings.

Factors that Impact the Sentencing of Cops

Experts in criminal justice maintain that the public opinion tends to support the law enforcement agents. The public understands that the nature of the work of a police officer requires one to make split-second judgment in the case of an intense situation. Failure to act promptly would lead to the police officer losing his/her life or putting the lives of citizens in danger. A Gallup study revealed that police officers are among the personnel that get immense support from the public (Cooper 52).

Many people tend to believe in what the police officer says. The public holds that a law enforcement officer cannot decide to kill without substantial reason. Such a public perception makes it hard for the prosecutor to gather enough evidence that can result in a conviction.

In each homicide case that is brought to the court, there is always one party that maintains that the shooting was warranted. In many cases, it is the law enforcement agent involved in homicide. It does not “hurt an officer’s case that in fatal shootings, there is no competing story from the person who was shot” (Cooper 57). In the background of the story that an accused officer adduces in court is the perception that law enforcement agents are law abiding citizens who only draw a gun when it is necessary.

The use of video footage that shows what transpired in a police shooting incident has started to change the public’s opinion regarding the law enforcement agents. Nevertheless, the public appears to shield accused officers despite the video footage showing that they used excessive force.

Jurors’ outlook is another issue that impacts the conviction of cops for on-duty homicides. The criminal court judges, as well as the grand adjudicator, are appointed from the local communities. In times when there is a high rate of police transgression, members of the public appear to protect the cops. Political dialogues and modern customs are filled with remarks regarding both the prime significance of cops in preserving the essential structural honor of the public and the precarious state of their occupation (Fyfe 18). Furthermore, the legal principles for prosecuting a law enforcement officer require the judges to “put themselves in the officers’ shoes, further strengthening the tendency to identify with the police” (Fyfe 21).

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Structural barriers impact police condemnation or trial. The team that investigates a homicide incident is made up of police officers and personnel from the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutors cannot gather information regarding a homicide without the help of police officers (Fyfe 25). As a result, it is hard for officers to turn against their colleague. In many cases, the law enforcement agents involved in collecting evidence regarding police shootings conspire to conceal vital information. The officers furnish the prosecutor with limited information that cannot facilitate a conviction. Therefore, it becomes hard for the prosecutor to prove that a murder was premeditated.

Most district attorneys are reluctant to prosecute police officers. They do not want to appear as restraining police power (Fyfe 28). Even in societies that do not trust the cops, no prosecutor loses his/her job for protecting a police officer. The community believes that the office of the district attorney is bestowed the responsibility of maintaining law and order. Thus, the public does not expect the lawyers to act contrary to their mandates.

Prosecutors play a significant role in an investigation whenever they trust that the actions of a police officer were not warranted. Nevertheless, they rely on police personnel in the inquiry. The need for the prosecutors to work closely with police officers is a significant barrier to prosecuting cops for on-duty homicides. A conflict of interest emerges amid the police and prosecutors, which hinders active investigations (Loftin et al. 1118).

The manner in which the attorneys dealt with Wilson’s case demonstrated the laxity in prosecuting cops for on-duty homicides. The prosecutors took a lot of time to gather evidence. Even though one may argue that they took the time to guarantee thoroughness in the investigation, the prosecutors did it on purpose to give room for a civic cooling-off. In a standard case, the attorneys present their findings to the grand jury and request for particular verdicts to be considered.

They then support their application with evidence. Despite the prosecutors presenting evidence, over 90% of the police officers are set free due to the inadequate attestation of the officers’ motives (Loftin et al. 1120). Besides, the court proceedings tend to favor the law enforcement agents.

Courts and judges have “long given enforcement officers broad discretion in the execution of their duties and the benefit of the doubt” (Loftin et al. 1121). The cops enjoy the benefit of the doubt throughout the investigation and prosecution period. The officers investigating a homicide incidence may opt not to be aggressive in their inquiry, therefore affecting the quality of evidence adduced in court. Once the investigating officers complete their investigation, they present the findings to the government attorney. The attorney has the liberty to prosecute or not prosecute depending on the weight of the evidence. In many cases, the lawyers make decisions that favor the police officers.

The American laws give the cops officers the power to use force if they realize that their life or that of bystanders is in danger. In Graham v. Connor’s case, the Supreme Court maintained that the police officer acted within the law. In his judgment, the chief justice claimed that the ‘rationality’ of any use of excessive force should be interpreted from a viewpoint of a levelheaded law enforcement agent on the ground but not from a 20/20 visualization of retrospection (Skolnick and Fyfe 24).

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The judges do not consider if the law enforcement officer was dispassionately right to use force. Instead, they assess if an officer instinctively thought that he was correct the minute he used force. In many cases, officers claim that they were afraid since their lives were at risk during a confrontation with the victim. The prosecutors are not tasked with determining if an officer was really at risk. Instead, they are required to infer if it was sensible for the officer to presume that he/she was at risk.

The jury requires determining if the police used force to prosecute a law enforcement agent. The judicial system does not have standard measures to use in determining if an officer used excessive force. Each incident is resolved individually ((Skolnick and Fyfe 28). The fact that the prosecutor has to interpret each case independently makes it hard for cops to be sentenced for on-duty homicides.

In many states, the police officers are allowed to use deadly force if criminals attempt to grab their guns. Thus, in determining the rationality of the law enforcement agent’s action, the judge may consider issues like the physical appearance of the victim and his previous criminal records (Skolnick and Fyfe 32). Moreover, the jury may consider the experience of the police officer. These factors offer multiple channels for rationalizing the actions that the police officer took depending on his/her sound understanding of the circumstance.

A majority of the laws used to prosecute an on-duty homicide requires the prosecutor to confirm if an officer was of sound mind when he/she committed the crime. Additionally, the attorney requires determining if an officer was at risk or the victim was a threat to the public (White 297). The prosecutor has to verify if a levelheaded officer would behave the same. The inability to prove that the actions the police took were unwarranted makes it hard for the courts to sentence cops who commit murder while on the job. The prosecutor almost requires getting into the head of the perpetrator to determine the motive behind his/her actions.

Race relations are other factors that make it hard for the courts to sentence cops for on-duty homicides in the United States. In spite of the United States claiming to be a postracial nation, racial prejudice and division pervade the country. Racial discrimination is primarily prevalent in the American judicial system. Jury bias frustrates the attempt to prosecute police officers, particularly in cases that involve a white officer and a black victim (White 302). The study shows that the blacks have a negative attitude towards the police compared to the whites. Unfortunately, the white judges are likely to favor the police without considering the race of the victim or the officer.

Such a situation was witnessed in Rodney King judgments in California. A panel comprising mostly of white judges declined to condemn four police officers from the Los Angeles Police Department for brutally beating King (White 312). The judges exonerated three officers. Further, there was a standoff in determining if the fourth officer used excessive force. Later, a panel comprising of different federal judges convicted two of the law enforcement officers for contravening King’s civil rights.

In the United States, the police department lacks internal managerial accountability. The department hardly punishes the police officers for using excessive force in dealing with the public. A study from Seattle and Philadelphia showed that when police officers are subject to punishment, “the majority of such cases end up being overturned by arbitrators or courts as a result of extensive due process protections for police officers” (Gottschalk and Stedje 51). Eventually, the officers end up escaping the punishment and retaining their jobs.

The United States continue to use archaic laws on the application of excessive force. The legislations that the country uses were enacted in the 1970s at a time when there was a high rate of police shootings. The state has made little effort to reform the laws. In 1984, the Supreme Court made some improvements after the Tennessee v. Garner case. The court abolished the use of force, particularly on escaping suspect (Gottschalk and Stedje 54). Unfortunately, the police department did not take heed to court’s directives. Since the 1984 ruling, the courts have significantly allowed the police to use excessive force to deal with uncooperative suspects (Gottschalk and Stedje 56). Thus, it is hard for the judges to sentence a cop.

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Institutional, legal and social hurdles affect the prosecution of cops for on-duty homicides. In the United States, the law gives police officers the power to use force when dealing with uncooperative criminals. Thus, it is hard for the juries to indict an officer. Besides, police receive massive support from the public, which makes it hard for the jury to determine if an officer violated his/her code of conduct in the event of a homicide. A conflict of interest arises amid the prosecutors and police officers in the course of an investigation. The police officers involved in an inquiry decline to provide evidence that can incriminate their colleague. Eventually, the prosecutor is unable to present substantial evidence that can warrant an indictment.

Works Cited

Cooper, Christopher. “Yes Virginia, There is a Police Code of Silence: Prosecuting Police Officers and the Police Subculture.” The Criminal Law Bulletin, WEST 45.2 (2009): 45-63. Print.

Fyfe, James. “Police Use of Deadly Force: Research and Reform.” Justice Quarterly: Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences 14.3 (2008): 17-33. Print.

Gottschalk, Petter and Siri Stedje. “Crimes and Motives as Predictors of Jail Sentence for Police Misconduct.” International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice 38.2 (2010): 49-58. Print.

Loftin, Colin, Brian Wiersema, David McDowall and Adam Dobrin. “Underreporting of Justifiable Homicides Committed by Police Officers in the United States, 1976-1998.” American Journal of Public Health 93.7 (2003): 1117-1121. Print.

Skolnick, Jerome, and J. Fyfe. Above the Law: Police and the Excessive use of Force, Toronto: Maxwell MacMillan, 2007. Print.

White, Michael. “Assessing the Impact of Administrative Policy on Use of Deadly Force by On- and Off-Duty Police.” Evaluation Review 24.3 (2015): 295-318. Print.

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