What happens when police screw up?

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 2.47.18 PMFerguson police shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. St. Paul police tased and arrested Chris Lollie, a black dad who was waiting for his kids in a public space near their preschool. Beverly Hills police stopped, cuffed and arrested Charles Belk, a film producer and business executive, as he walked to his car, because he “fit the description” of a bank robber — “tall, bald head black male.”

After the YouTube and Facebook posting, after the protests, what happens? Like a lot of the legal system, things get complicated. Here’s the short explanation, and then a slightly longer explanation of civil cases, criminal cases, administrative remedies, and federal civil rights investigations.

The short story:

Civil cases                       

• You are the plaintiff — you hire an attorney and sue the defendant.            

• If you win, defendant is ordered to pay money to you.

Criminal cases                       

• Government attorney (prosecutor) files criminal charges against defendant.

• If government wins case, defendant might go to jail or pay a fine to the government. 

Administrative hearing

• You file complaint with the review board.

• If you “win,” the police officer or department might be disciplined, or just told to behave differently.

Federal civil rights investigations

• Sometimes criminal, sometimes looking for patterns of civil rights violations.

• Criminal: someone could go to jail.

• Pattern of violations: city or police department could be ordered to make changes.

In civil cases, one person sues another. Say your neighbor’s dog chews up your leg. You are the plaintiff and you sue your neighbor (defendant) for the doctor bills and maybe for your pain and suffering and the wages you lost while you couldn’t work. If you win the case, your neighbor has to pay you money for the amount of damage that you suffered. Sometimes the case goes to a trial, with witnesses and a judge and jury. More often the plaintiff and the defendant agree on a settlement before trial.

When police screw up, the victim can sue them in civil court. Settlements of civil lawsuits against police cost the City of Minneapolis more than $9 million from 2009-2013.

In civil cases, the person filing the lawsuit is the plaintiff, and the plaintiff has to either represent him/herself or hire an attorney. The person being sued is the defendant — in police cases, that’s usually the police officer and the city that employs the officer.

In 2006, police stopped and arrested Derrick Simmons and Nancy Johnson in Minneapolis. Long story — but a Hennepin County surveillance video that police didn’t know about showed that they lied in a police report and the charges were dismissed. Johnson and Simmons sued the police and the City of Minneapolis and settled for a total of $100,000.

Criminal cases are different. In a criminal case, the plaintiff/person suing is the government, on behalf of “the people.” The defendant is the person accused of committing a crime. If the defendant is found guilty, he/she is sentenced to a fine or prison time or probation. The outcome of a criminal case is about punishment, not about paying back the victim.

Criminal charges can only be brought by prosecutors (elected city or county attorney’s offices), not by individuals. The prosecutor (and sometimes a grand jury) considers the evidence, decides whether they think that the police officer committing a crime, and whether they think there is enough evidence to prove that case. Civil cases have to be proved “by a preponderance of the evidence.” Criminal cases have to be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” — a lot tougher to do.

The Michael Brown case was sent to a grand jury. The prosecutor presents evidence and the grand jury hears it in secret proceedings. Then the grand jury will vote on whether to file criminal charges against police officer Darren Wilson and what those charges will be. Administrative remedies happen outside the court system. An example of an administrative remedy is a complaint to the police internal affairs department or to a police review board. A person can make a complaint about police misconduct, even if there are no money damages and no criminal law broken by the police. For example, many complaints involve disrespectful behavior or improper police procedures.

This is a non-judicial, internal process. Sometimes these internal complaints are investigated by police officers and sometimes by civilian investigators who are employed by the city.

In administrative review, a police officer might be reprimanded or suspended, but this doesn’t happen very often. More frequently, the officer may be “coached” or talked to by his/her superiors about proper police methods.

Administrative review complaints go to the Office of Police Conduct Review in Minneapolis and the Police-Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission in St. Paul. (More on these two organizations in Holding police responsible — or not — in Minneapolis and St. Paul.)

In the Chris Lollie case, the City of St. Paul has promised an investigation. Will that mean discipline for the officers or changes in police policy? One expert says it’s doubtful — see Police “think they’re 100% justified.”

Federal civil rights investigations can take two forms: investigation of specific incidents for criminal prosecution and investigation of police departments for patterns of civil rights violations. In Ferguson, both kinds of investigations are happening. The Department of Justice is investigating the shooting of Michael Brown as a possible violation of his civil rights. In a separate investigation, they are looking at the Ferguson Police Department and how it operates in the community. An article in Mother Jones gives some great information about the process, saying in part:

“Within the Civil Rights Division, two sections may be involved: There’s the Criminal Section, which ‘prosecutes cases involving the violent interference with liberties and rights defined in the Constitution or federal law,’ including excessive use of force by police officers; also, the Special Litigation Section conducts investigations into systematic violations of civil rights by state and local institutions, including police departments. The Criminal Section launched the initial investigation into the death of Michael Brown.”

Next up:

I started writing this as a single blog post, but there’s far too much information for just one. Two more posts are almost ready to publish, and there may be more before I’m finished.

Other related articles:


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3 responses to “What happens when police screw up?

  1. Pingback: Police “think they’re 100% justified” | News Day

  2. Pingback: Holding police responsible — or not — in Minneapolis and St. Paul | News Day

  3. Pingback: Moving — now — toward police reform | News Day

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