On May 1st, Baltimore City state's attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that six Baltimore police officers will face criminal charges — including second-degree murder and manslaughter — in the death of Freddie Gray in police custody on April 19.
This is incredibly rare; many police misconduct cases never turn into criminal prosecutions. But even when police officers do get tried for misconduct, the outcomes look very different than they do when civilians are prosecuted.
The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted. That's about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted. Furthermore, only 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences — again, about half as often as members of the general public convicted of crimes were sent to prison.
Even when they did serve prison sentences, police officers generally got shorter sentences than the public did:
This isn't a fluke. It's the result of systemic biases in favor of police officers. As David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-authored the book Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, explained in an interview, juries have "a tendency to believe a police officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility."
That means that "when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite." The prosecutor's case needs to be very strong to convince a jury that an officer's behavior was egregious enough to be worthy of criminal punishment. Ordinary defendants, by contrast, enjoy no such advantage.
The charts above show the dramatic cumulative effect of that bias. Only a third of police officers who are charged with a crime ever get convicted. And of those, nearly two thirds are never incarcerated. That's very, very different from the outcomes for civilian defendants, who face strong odds of conviction and incarceration.