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Liberal Prosecutors Struggle to Charge Officers in Old Cases

With high-profile instances of police brutality occurring more in recent years, liberal prosecutors have promised to reopen old cases involving police officers that were closed without charges, but few charges have resulted, The New York Times reports. Shortly after she became the district attorney of Alameda County, Calif., in January, Pamela Price initiated a new review of those cases and five others in one of the most extensive re-examinations of police killings launched by progressive prosecutors. Price’s review is notable because her predecessors had already cleared the officers of wrongdoing and two of the reopened cases occurred more than 15 years ago. “To reopen a police use-of-force case is, in many ways, a herculean task,” said Steve Descano, the commonwealth’s attorney in Fairfax County, Va. He lost in court after he charged two federal Park Police officers for the 2017 shooting of a man who fled a car crash, a case that the Justice Department previously reviewed and declined to pursue.

The incidents almost never have evidence as stark as the bystander video in the George Floyd case. The circumstances often are more ambiguous, the footage less telling. And once a district attorney writes a lengthy memo detailing why criminal charges are unjustified against a police officer, it can be difficult for a successor to overcome those arguments, absent new evidence. The biggest hurdle for pursuing criminal charges is the wide latitude that officers have to use force. State legislatures, including California’s, have tried to narrow that ability. But officers generally can still use lethal force when they feel they or others could be killed, a level of immunity that law enforcement officials say is necessary to ensure the public’s safety. Less than 2 percent of police killings result in charges, according to Philip M. Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University. That figure has not budged since 2020. The number of people killed by the police is holding steady — last year it was 1,200, compared with 1,147 in 2022, according to Mapping Police Violence.


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