A Cleveland grand jury and Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty decided Monday not to indict police officers in the 2014 killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun in a park. Many feel the decision is a miscarriage of justice, and a symbol of how the criminal justice system gives entirely too much deference to cops who shoot people, especially people of color.
That might be true. But high-profile incidents where officers aren't indicted, like this case in Cleveland — or aren't convicted, like the Baltimore police officer whose trial in the death of Freddie Gray resulted in a hung jury earlier this month — might be obscuring a broader change in the system. There's evidence that prosecutors really have been more willing, in 2015, to charge police officers with crimes for use of force than they were in previous years.
18 officers were charged in 2015 — up from an average of 5
The Washington Post has been tracking police killings throughout 2015. According to their count, 18 officers have been charged with crimes for killing people they were charged to protect.
That doesn't sound like much — especially because, according to the Post, 975 people have been killed by police in 2015. But it's a substantial increase over previous years. An analysis the Post did earlier this year showed that, from 2005 to 2014, only 54 police officers were indicted over fatal shootings — an average of 5 per year.
Half of the 2015 indictments stemmed from shootings that occurred during the year, while the rest date back as far as 2011. In 10 of the 2015 cases, prosecutors had a video record of the shooting, a big increase over previous years.
Prosecutors have political reasons to go easy on police
The uptick in criminal charges filed against police in 2015 doesn't mean there's been a total transformation in American criminal justice. Whenever you're dealing with numbers this small, there's always a possibility that year-to-year fluctuations are just statistical blips that don't reflect any lasting trend. But there's a logical argument that the factors that lead prosecutors not to want to charge police with crimes might actually be changing — or at least might be counterbalanced by a growing incentive for prosecutors to show that they treat all defendants equally, whether or not the defendant wears a badge.
The single biggest truth about prosecutors and police officers is that prosecutors rely on police to get their jobs done. That's a pretty powerful disincentive for a prosecutor to tick a police department off — by, say, indicting one of its officers for killing someone in the line of duty.
In some cases, prosecutors who do charge police officers in shootings really do face retaliation from the department. As my colleague German Lopez noted earlier this year, the day after a prosecutor in Albuquerque, New Mexico, indicted officers in one shooting, a prosecutor in her office was kept out of a briefing on another shooting.
Usually, though, police officers don't need to issue threats to get prosecutors to treat them well. As criminologist Thomas Nolan has told Vox, prosecutors interact with police officers every day on cases. They develop a relationship. That relationship — with an individual officer or his department — makes it hard for prosecutors to be objective when the officer is facing potential criminal charges.
Prosecutors might be realizing there are political benefits to treating police like everyone else
Since the summer of 2014, when the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown by police officers sparked sustained protests and fueled the Black Lives Matter movement, the criminal-justice system's treatment of police officers who shoot people, in general, has come under increasing scrutiny. That includes the cozy relationship between prosecutors and police.
Scrutiny doesn't automatically produce change. But it has created greater public awareness of the role prosecutors play in determining whether police go to trial for killing people. And many activists and interested community members have started targeting prosecutors to demand that officers "face justice."
Prosecutors don't necessarily want to jeopardize their relationships with police officers simply because some members of the public want them to file charges. But at a certain point, ignoring what the public wants is dangerous for a prosecutor. Prosecutors are elected officials — if they manage to upset the public enough, the public might remember to vote them out of office.
For decades, this political pressure has led prosecutors to be "tough on crime" — assuming that the people who care about crime enough to vote based on it are the ones who want to see as many criminals locked up as possible. (According to some criminologists, like John Pfaff of Fordham University, this has actually been a major driver of the rise of mass incarceration.) But as issues of both policing and incarceration have become important to progressives — and, in particular, to communities of color — the politics have gotten more complicated. In particular, prosecutors who attract broad media attention for being overly harsh on people of color have faced a backlash.
Under the status quo as it existed before 2014, charging a police officer made a prosecutor's job harder. But in a world where the public pays a lot of attention to police shootings, not charging a police officer could put a prosecutor in danger of losing her job entirely.