Are the Courts Ill-Equipped to Lead Police Reform?

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After juries acquitted police officers in prominent Minnesota and Oklahoma shootings, many experts are concluding that the courts may be ill-equipped to lead the debate over police reform, reports the Christian Science Monitor. Police officers are rarely convicted criminally. Only one officer involved in a controversial post-Ferguson police shooting has been convicted: Michael Slager, who fatally shot Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., in 2015. Families have had much more success with civil rights lawsuits, with many having settled with municipalities for millions of dollars. While such settlements may bring a measure of acknowledgment for grieving families, they may not directly change the underlying police behavior. Convicting police officers is challenging, because the law gives them broad latitude in justifying their use of lethal force.

Even large civil settlements have little deterring effect because the costs are typically shouldered by municipalities and covered by insurers. “In some ways we want it to be that way because we don’t want to chill officers in their duties,” says Prof. Kami Chavis-Simmons, a former prosecutor who directs the Criminal Justice Program at the Wake Forest University School of Law. “We have to think of different ways of holding officers accountable.” Activists and reformers could focus on pressing for changes to police department policies, particularly through using their ballot box power to elect mayors, district attorneys, and other officials willing to implement new policies. Settlements could be provoking a form of private sector oversight on police, through the pressures liability insurers could impose on departments they’re covering. Insurers have been pressuring smaller police departments, The Atlantic reported, threatening to withdraw coverage if reforms aren’t made. Such a development could be significant under a Trump administration that has expressed a desire to minimize federal oversight of police.

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