Report: Civil Rights Cases Against Officers ‘Rare’

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Federal prosecutors declined to pursue civil rights allegations against law enforcement officers 96 percent of the time since 1995, a newspaper found, with most experts blaming the low prosecution rate on the difficulty of winning such cases.

According to a report released by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the 12,703 potential civil rights violations turned down nationwide out of 13,233 total complaints from 1995-2015 include high-profile incidents in Chicago, New York and Ferguson, Missouri, but also thousands of incidents the public knows little about.

It said the most frequent reasons cited for declining civil rights complaints involving officers were weak or insufficient evidence, high standards of proof established by Supreme Court rulings, and policies set by the Justice Department.

Several legal and civil rights experts told the publication that convicting a police officer of a civil rights violation is one of the toughest challenges faced by a prosecutor. But some criminal justice experts said the Justice Department needs to invest more resources into the cases. They also suggested that the typical partnering of police and prosecutors affects decision-making.

“It’s got to be a willful deprivation of rights, meaning the police officer intended and wanted to either kill or injure the person,” said Alan Vinegrad, a former federal prosecutor and now a partner at the law firm of Covington & Burling LLP in New York. “Not just ‘it was reckless or negligent’ or anything like that.”

The U.S. attorney’s office in Pittsburgh will open files for even minor accusations that the FBI investigates against a police officer, said Steve Kaufman, chief of the office’s criminal division. But, he said, “it’s one of the most difficult cases to gather sufficient evidence to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.”

The Justice Department, responding to the newspaper’s findings, published Sunday, said it takes any allegation of law enforcement misconduct seriously and will review them when brought to the agency’s attention.