It may be difficult to win a criminal conviction in the case of a Los Angeles police officer who beat a black suspected car thief with a flashlight as cameras rolled, says the Los Angeles Times. The videotape, Police Chief William J. Bratton has acknowledged, “looks very bad.” Officer John Hatfield is shown kicking at Stanley Miller, who is sprawled face down, and then hitting him 11 times with a flashlight. the Times notes that in several highly publicized cases, including some in which the incidents were videotaped, the officers never were charged or were not found guilty. The 1992 trial of four officers who beat Rodney King ended in acquittals on all but one count, sparking deadly rioting. Two officers later were convicted in federal court of violating King’s civil rights. “You need to persuade all 12 members of this diverse community in L.A. or anywhere else that the person should be held criminally responsible – and that’s a high burden,” said former federal prosecutor Michael Gennaco. “It’s difficult, but not impossible.”
Jurors are reluctant to convict officers for actions on duty, especially if they offer a reasonable explanation. Juries tend to find police officers more sympathetic than their victims, who often have criminal records. They recognize that officers have the authority to use force, and may disagree on how much is too much, especially when officers have to make decisions in an instant. In February, the L.A. County district attorney’s office dropped its case against former Inglewood police officer Jeremy Morse, who was videotaped in 2002 slamming a 16-year-old boy on the trunk of a patrol car and punching him in the jaw. Two juries deadlocked on the charges. In the Miller case, officers could be charged in state court with using excessive force, lying on a police report, or assault with a deadly weapon. In federal court, they could be charged with violating the victim’s civil rights. They could face civil lawsuits. The department also could discipline the officers.