An investigation into the results of civil rights cases in the United States between 1995 and 2015 found that federal prosecutors declined to charge police officers 96 percent of the time.
A report from the investigation, which was conducted by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, analyzed 3 million federal records from the Justice Department’s 94 U.S. Attorney offices. Out of 13,233 complaints, prosecutors turned down 12,703 alleged civil rights violations.
The report listed weak or insufficient evidence, lack of criminal intent and orders from the Justice Department as reasons given by prosecutors for declining to charge officers, and it noted that for all other crimes, “prosecutors rejected only about 23 percent of complaints.”
Steve Kaufman, chief of Western Pennsylvania’s criminal division, told the Tribune-Review that while the U.S. Attorney’s office for the area opens files for all accusations, civil rights cases are some of the “most difficult cases” to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
“We don’t hesitate to open a file on a civil rights case, yet it’s one of the most difficult cases to gather sufficient evidence to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt at trial,” Kaufman said. “Obviously then you do have a relatively high percentage that don’t end up being prosecuted.”
While Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, questioned whether some of the complaints against police officers were just “false complaints,” Craig Futterman, founder of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago, told the Tribune-Review that he thinks “the failure to aggressively bring those cases has allowed too many abusive officers to believe that they can operate without fear of punishment.”
The report listed 12 federal districts—Southern Alabama, Southern Georgia, Northern Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, Northern Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Western Virginia, Western Washington and Western Wisconsin—where out of 671 complaints over 21 years, only 1 officer was prosecuted in each district.
Out of the federal districts examined, prosecutors in 11 districts—Alaska, Colorado, Central Illinois, Southern Iowa, Maine, Western Michigan, New Jersey, North Dakota, Vermont, Eastern Washington and Wyoming—received a total of 240 complaints “yet never charged a single officer from 1995-2015.”