Another Police Officer Escapes Conviction
This week a Detroit police officer’s trial ended in a hung jury. It was the second trial for officer Joseph Weekley, who was charged with careless, reckless or negligent discharge of a firearm.
This case began on May 16, 2010, when Officer Weekley and members of the Special Response Team raided a home on Detroit’s east side. During the raid, a round from Weekley’s gun struck a seven-year-old child, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, in the head killing her. Initially also charged with involuntary manslaughter, a felony, the judge in the case threw out that charge.
A controversial case in Detroit that brought criticism of the police in general, and Weekley in particular, the shooting did nothing to enhance the often-negative image of police officers in Detroit. But the outcome of the second trial raises a troubling question: Why is it so difficult to convict police officers of wrong doing?
This question has nothing to do with Detroit and is not meant as criticism of the police, prosecutors, or juries. Rather, it suggests a sociological phenomenon that has been observed around the country in the last several decades. While it is not to say that police officers always escape punishment for misconduct, still it seems that more often than not when a case involving police officers goes to trial the odds are stacked against the prosecution.
Two obvious examples of this come quickly to mind. In 1992, the four Los Angeles police officers caught on video beating Rodney King were acquitted in their trial, which sparked a riot in Los Angeles. The other case is the Sean Bell killing by New York police officers in 2006. Five officers fired over 50 rounds at Bell and his friends, all of whom were in a car and had committed no crime. Bell was killed. Three of the five officers went to trial, charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter; all three were acquitted.
What leads juries to acquit police officers?
I think there are several possible answers to this question. The most obvious one is that Americans like police officers. Another is that police officers refuse to testify against each other. And a third possible explanation is that juries are easily convinced that policing is tough and it is easy – given the difficulties of policing – to make mistakes.
Americans, I believe, have ambivalent attitudes toward the police. On the one hand, we rely on the police. They are the first agency we think about calling when we have a problem and need help. In an emergency, no one hesitates to call 9-1-1; it doesn’t matter whether you have trouble with your neighbor’s all night party or there’s an intruder breaking into your house. The police we strongly believe will respond and somehow be able help with the problem. On the other hand, we have a profound disrespect and distrust of the police officer as a symbol of authority. We joke about them hanging out at donut shops, failing to respond to calls, using excessive force on innocent citizens, being overweight, or shooting mentally ill people.
A part of us wants to believe that cops are there to protect and serve, and that they are basically good guys. So, when we get on a jury, we bend over backwards to see things from their perspective. However, what most of us know about police work comes mostly from television shows. Therefore, we are inclined to believe that officers must make split second decisions and you have to allow them some leeway to make mistakes. Defense attorneys know this and can play on the jury’s psychological quirks to win acquittals of cops.
But then there’s that blue code of silence. There is an unwritten rule among police officers that they never rat on a fellow officer. Underlying this blue wall of silence, as it is sometimes called, is the belief among police officers, which has been sold to the public, that cops have the toughest job in the world. They are in constant danger, could be shot by the bad guys at any time, and that police officers must stick together and be supportive of one another. It’s better to cover for a fellow officer than to tell the truth or testify about what really happened in a situation. In an investigation or a trial, it is difficult to get other officers to offer evidence that might serve to convict a fellow blue knight.
There is also what juries are predisposed to believe. Many police officers have been able to help juries convict innocent people because they frequently lie on the witness stand. But juries want to believe that a citizen is less trustworthy than a police officer. So they believe the officer. In that sense, many people want to portray themselves as pro-police – and will, give the benefit of any doubt to police officers.
Put all of these possible explanations together and you can see why Officer Joseph Weekley’s trials have ended up with two hung juries.
Does it make sense of the prosecutor to risk a third trial against Weekley? Probably not.
The problem with this, though, is that when an officer has been negligent or has been guilty of misconduct it is near impossible to win a verdict. What signal does that send to officers who need to understand that there are consequences for misconduct or to those citizens who are struggling to believe that this is a just society in which nobody is above the law?