As lawmakers negotiate a bill to hold cops more accountable for violence in the line of duty, Democrats and civil rights groups argue cops must be held more accountable by making it easier to file criminal charges under Section 242, a federal standard which serves as a backstop for state and local prosecutions of police, and pursue civil lawsuits while police organizations oppose the changes as a threat to their own safety in making split-second decisions in a high-pressure job, reports USA Today. Federal charges are rare and can take years to pursue, but are often weighed in high-profile cases of police violence. Section 242 of Chapter 18 of the U.S. Code requires one of the toughest burdens of proof in criminal law to convict officers, allowing the Justice Department to charge officers who “willfully” deprive a suspect of civil rights, which aren’t specified.
The provision is vague enough that a Georgia sheriff once challenged it all the way to the Supreme Court, which yielded what legal experts say is “not a model of clarity.” In another case, the high court provided guidance that prosecutors must prove the officer intended to act unreasonably in what can be a split-second decision. The House voted in March as part of the policing overhaul to ease the standard from acting “willfully” to “reckless” conduct, which aims to punish conduct without knowing what the officer was thinking. Investigations under Section 242 take years and often don’t result in charges, such as in the cases of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. Police organizations and their supporters in Congress have opposed changing the standard for prosecuting officers.