Ferguson–Can Cops be Held Responsible?

So many people are angry and confused at what’s happening with police officers whoFerguson kill citizens in the line of duty and don’t ever seem to be criminally charged.  Many people ask: As in Ferguson, can cops ever be held responsible for their actions?

Without getting into the politics of this issue, I want to look at the legal process behind police violence investigations.  Here are seven things to consider:

1.  Police and law enforcement are the only people in our country who are authorized to use violence as part of their jobs.  If you and I stopped at Super America and found someone robbing it, we have no right to stop and, potentially, kill the robber.  Therefore, police are held to a different standard than the rest of us if they happen to kill someone while doing their jobs.

2.  If there’s a question about a killing, such as occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, the local prosecutor could call a grand jury to look at the case.  The prosecutor would gather evidence from the officer, other police, and any citizen witnesses.  Each of these people would be called to testify before the grand jury to help the grand jury decide, like Ferguson, can cops can be held responsible.

3.  The grand jury proceedings are held in secret.  These aren’t jury trials like we’re familiar with and see on TV.  The statutes of all the states establish the process for grand juries and most, as far as I know, are always held in secret.  Why?  It’s to protect potentially innocent people since, before the grand jury meets, no one has been charged yet.

4.  The most important thing to understand is that the standard of proof for a law enforcement person is different from that used with any other citizen.  Since the officer is allowed to use deadly force, the question becomes: was he justified in using deadly force under the circumstances?  Can the cop be held responsible—only will happen if the grand jury decides he acted beyond a justifiable level.

5.  The system, as a result, is tilted toward law enforcement.  Even in the Rodney King case, where many of us saw the video and were flabbergasted that a jury found all the cops not guilty of excessive brutality, it was probably because the police are held to a different standard.  The same was true in Ferguson, Mo.

6.  Is this a good idea?  Can cops ever be held responsible for going beyond their legal bounds and killing people?  Many think that a cop’s job is so difficult and dangerous, we as a society should give them this wide-ranging power.  Others, feel the police abuse their powers all the time and should be reined-in.

7.  Here’s a good analysis for more ideas thttp://http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/08/nyregion/grand-juries-seldom-charge-police-officers-in-fatal-actions.html?_r=0

What do you think?



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About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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