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A grand jury’s decision to spare Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson from criminal charges makes his case the latest in a long line of police shootings that show the latitude that the law and the courts give law enforcement in using deadly force.
The question for the panel that decided the case was never whether Wilson, who is white, fatally shot unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown, but rather whether the Aug. 9 killing constituted a crime. In declining to indict Wilson, the grand jury reached a conclusion that is far more the norm than the exception. “For a cop to be indicted and especially to be convicted later of a crime in these kinds of situations is very, very unusual,” said Chuck Drago, a police practices consultant and former police chief in Oviedo, Fla.
The challenge to indict
What the police can do
States and police departments have developed their own policies that generally permit officers to use force when they reasonably fear imminent physical harm. The Supreme Court shaped the U.S. standard in a 1989 decision that said the use of force must be evaluated through the “perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene” rather than being judged after the fact. That means officers are often given the benefit of the doubt by prosecutors and grand jurors reluctant to second-guess their decisions.
Some cases do result in criminal charges. A North Carolina police officer was indicted in January in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man who wrecked his vehicle and apparently knocked on the front door of a home seeking help. Thinking incorrectly that the man was trying to break into her home, the homeowner called police. Three officers responded and one shot the unarmed victim, authorities say.
Why race can matter
Many of the cases that don’t result in charges involve armed suspects shot during confrontations with police. But even an officer who repeatedly shoots an unarmed person, as was the case in Ferguson, may avoid prosecution in cases where he contends he felt at imminent risk.
But even though police are legally empowered to use deadly force when appropriate, Chicago lawyer Lori Lightfoot said an officer’s perception of danger can be strongly influenced by the race of a suspect, particularly in a community like Ferguson, where an overwhelmingly white department patrols a majority-black city.
What next for Ferguson?
The Justice Department is continuing to investigate the Ferguson shooting for evidence of a potential civil-rights violation, and federal investigators are relying on the same evidence and witness statements as the grand jury. But they face a higher burden of proof to establish whether Wilson wilfully deprived Brown of his civil rights. That standard has been tough to satisfy in past high-profile shootings. Federal prosecutors, for example, declined this year to charge officers who fatally shot an unarmed woman with a baby in her back seat after a high-speed car chase from the White House to the U.S. Capitol.
With a report from Globe staff