Federal prosecutors rarely bring charges of excessive use of force against law enforcement officials, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
“Despite growing popular unrest and media attention” to police brutality, in the first seven months of FY 2020, federal prosecutors filed excessive use of force charges in a mere 27 cases, reported TRAC.
In April of 2020, federal prosecutors did not file any cases with excessive use of force as the top charge.
Prosecutors often rely on 18 U.S. Code § 242 when police officers are alleged to have used excessive force. The statute makes it a crime for any individual acting “under the color of law” (i.e., in his/her capacity as police officers) to violate a person’s rights protected by the Constitution and/or laws of the United States.
Section 242 charges are rare, according to the report, but they have formed the legal basis of several notable prosecutions of police officers. In 1991, after the 14 LAPD officers who arrested and beat Rodney King were acquitted by a jury, federal prosecutors charged and convicted the officers under Section 242.
On the other hand, after the killing of Eric Garner in New York City in July of 2014, the Department of Justice determined that there was “insufficient evidence” to prove that police officers violated Garner’s rights under Section 242.
In November 2019, a federal jury convicted St. Paul, Mn., officer Brett Palkowitsch under Section 242 for “using excessive force against an unarmed civilian.” Palkowitsch released a police dog on Frank Baker, an unarmed black man, and proceeded to kick him while he was on the ground. Baker suffered a punctured lung and several broken ribs as a result.
TRAC found that in FY 2019, federal prosecutors brought Section 242 charges in just 49 cases. Put another way, Section 242 cases accounted for 0.027 percent of the 184,274 total federal prosecutions that year.
Between 1990 and 2019, federal prosecutors leveled Section 242 charges against police officers 41 times per year on average. That number hit a low in 2005 with 19 and peaked in 2008 with 67.
No year since then has come close, found the report’s authors.
By comparison, federal prosecutors filed 69,536 cases for the petty offense of illegal entry into the country.
During FY 2019, there were 467 prosecutions for simple drug possession and 119 for illegally taking fish, wildlife, and migratory birds.
The dearth of federal Section 242 charges is not explained by a lack of criminal referrals. In fact, “federal prosecutors receive at least ten times more criminal referrals than they prosecute,” wrote the report’s authors.
In FY 2019, federal prosecutors pursued 11 percent of referrals, which makes it among the lowest prosecution rates. Rates of prosecutions for hate crimes and obstruction of investigations were similar – at 10 percent and 9 percent respectively.
Between 1990 and 2006, federal attorneys prosecuted less than three percent of criminal referrals.
TRAC contends that “a driving force behind the declination rate appears to be not the standards used by federal prosecutors for filing prosecutions, but the standards used by the FBI in deciding whether to refer a case to federal prosecutors.”
The full report can be accessed here.
Michael Gelb is a TCR News Intern.