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Michael Brown's family files lawsuit against city of Ferguson

Tears roll down the cheek of Lesley McSpadden, the mother of slain teenager Michael Brown.
Tears roll down the cheek of Lesley McSpadden, the mother of slain teenager Michael Brown.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
  1. The family of Michael Brown filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city of Ferguson, Missouri, for Brown's death by police, seeking at least $75,000 in damages.
  2. Last August, former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who is white, shot and killed Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old.
  3. The shooting led to nationwide protests over racial disparities in police use of force and the criminal justice system.
  4. A state grand jury and federal investigators decided not to file charges against Wilson for the shooting, citing a lack of incriminating evidence against Wilson.

What we know about the police shooting of Michael Brown

Police can legally use deadly force when they reasonably perceive a threat

A police officer at a shooting range.

A police officer aims a gun. (Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images)

Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

Two Supreme Court decisions in the 1980s, Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor, set the legal framework for determining when deadly force by cops is reasonable.

Constitutionally, "police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances," David Klinger, a University of Missouri–St. Louis professor who studies law enforcement officers' use of force, said in August. The first circumstance is "to protect their life or the life of another innocent party" — referred to as the "defense-of-life" standard by police departments. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect has committed a serious violent felony.

The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger explained, comes from Tennessee v. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He'd stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn't shoot every felon who tried to escape. But as Klinger said, "They basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you've got a violent person who's fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight."

what matters is the officer's "objectively reasonable" belief that there is a threat

The key to both of the legal standards — defense of life and stopping a fleeing violent felon — is that it doesn't matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer's "objectively reasonable" belief that there is a threat.

That standard comes from the other Supreme Court case that guides use-of-force decisions: Graham v. Connor. This was a civil lawsuit brought by a man who survived his encounter with police officers but was treated roughly, had his face shoved into the hood of a car, and broke his foot — all while suffering a diabetic attack. The court didn't rule on whether the officers' actions had been justified, but said police couldn't justify their conduct solely based on whether their intentions were good. They had to demonstrate that their actions were "objectively reasonable," given the circumstances and compared with what other police officers might do.

What's "objectively reasonable" changes as the circumstances change. "One can't just say, 'Because I could use deadly force 10 seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now,'" Walter Katz, a California attorney who specializes in oversight of law enforcement agencies, said in August.

In general, officers are given lot of legal room to use force without fear of punishment. The intention behind these legal standards is to give police officers leeway to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and bystanders. And although critics argue that these legal standards give law enforcement a license to kill innocent or unarmed people, police officers say they are essential to their safety.

Police are rarely charged and prosecuted for use of force

Police are very rarely prosecuted for shootings — and not just because the law allows them wide latitude to use force on the job. Sometimes the investigations fall onto the same police department the officer is from, which creates major conflicts of interest. Other times the only available evidence comes from eyewitnesses, who may be viewed as less trustworthy in the public eye than a police officer.

"There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility," David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, told Vox's Amanda Taub. "And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody who we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction."

An analysis by FiveThirtyEight's Reuben Fischer-Baum found police are convicted in 33 percent of cases and incarcerated in 12 percent of the cases when they go to trial, while members of the general public are convicted 68 percent of the time and incarcerated 48 percent of the time when they go to trial.

fivethirtyeight police prosecutions chart

(Reuben Fischer-Baum/FiveThirtyEight)

But a wrongful-death lawsuit like the one filed by the Brown family doesn't need to clear as high of a legal bar as criminal charges and convictions, perhaps giving the family a better chance of winning this case than charges from a grand jury or federal investigators.

Read the Brown family's full lawsuit against Ferguson

Watch: Why filming the police is so important