A Short History of Killer Cops Let Off the Hook

The U.S. has a long history of allowing police to walk free after vicious racist violence.

Flint Taylor

Protesters march through the streets of Ferguson. (Jamelle Bouie / Wikimedia Commons)

The Fer­gu­son grand jury’s deci­sion not to indict Fer­gu­son police offi­cer Dar­ren Wil­son for the killing of African-Amer­i­can teenag­er Michael Brown is heart­less but unsur­pris­ing. But it is impor­tant to place the case in con­text with the his­to­ry of police vio­lence inves­ti­ga­tions and pros­e­cu­tions in high pro­file cas­es — and the sys­temic and racist police bru­tal­i­ty that con­tin­ues to plague the nation. In doing so, there are lessons for the move­ment for jus­tice in the Michael Brown case, as well as for those who are engaged in the broad­er strug­gle against law enforce­ment violence.

The pre-ordained failure of a biased local prosecutor to obtain an indictment against Darren Wilson should not surprise us. But the movement for justice for Michael Brown has brought widespread attention to the nationwide problem of systemic and racist police violence and highlighted the movement that has come together to battle against it.

What fol­lows, then, is a brief his­to­ry of sim­i­lar high pro­file cas­es where pub­lic out­rage com­pelled the jus­tice sys­tem to con­front acts of racial­ly moti­vat­ed police vio­lence — with, to say the least, less than sat­is­fac­to­ry results.

Chica­go

Over the past 45 years, Chica­go has been a prime exam­ple of offi­cial indif­fer­ence and cov­er-up when it comes to pros­e­cut­ing the police for wan­ton bru­tal­i­ty and torture.

On Decem­ber 4, 1969, Black Pan­ther lead­ers Fred Hamp­ton and Mark Clark were slain in a police raid that impli­cat­ed the Cook Coun­ty State’s Attor­ney and the FBI’s Coin­tel­pro pro­gram. A pub­lic out­cry led to a Fed­er­al Civ­il Rights inves­ti­ga­tion. Despite find­ing that the raid­ing police fired more than 90 shots to one by the Pan­thers, the Grand Jury in 1970 did not indict, but rather issued a report that equal­ly blamed the police per­pe­tra­tors and the Pan­ther victims.

Out­rage at this deci­sion led to the appoint­ment of a Spe­cial Pros­e­cu­tor who, in the face of extreme offi­cial resis­tance, obtained an indict­ment against the police and the State’s Attor­neys who planned and exe­cut­ed the raid — not for mur­der and attempt­ed mur­der, but rather for obstruc­tion of justice.

The case came to tri­al in front of a polit­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed judge who dis­missed the case with­out even requir­ing that the charged offi­cials put on a defense. Again, the out­rage, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty was so extreme that the chief pros­e­cu­tor, Edward V. Han­ra­han, was vot­ed out of office a week after the ver­dict was ren­dered in 1972.

The Jon Burge police tor­ture scan­dal pro­vides anoth­er stark exam­ple. Evi­dence that had been unearthed over the years demon­strat­ed that a crew of pre­dom­i­nate­ly white Chica­go police detec­tives, led by Jon Burge, tor­tured at least 120 African-Amer­i­can men from 1972 to 1991.

Cook Coun­ty State’s Attor­ney Richard M. Daley was ten­dered pow­er­ful evi­dence of this tor­ture as ear­ly as 1982, but did not inves­ti­gate or pros­e­cute Burge and his men. Daley’s office con­tin­ued to use con­fes­sions tor­tured from the vic­tims to send scores of them to prison — 10 of whom went to death row, though they were lat­er saved by a death penal­ty mora­to­ri­um in 2000 and by a grant of clemen­cy in 2003 by then-Gov­er­nor George Ryan — dur­ing the next sev­en years.

In 1989, the local U.S. Attor­neys’ office declined to pros­e­cute, as did the Depart­ment of Jus­tice in 1996 and Cook Coun­ty State’s Attor­ney Richard Devine for the five years direct­ly there­after. In 2001, due to con­tin­u­ing pub­lic pres­sure, a polit­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed Spe­cial Pros­e­cu­tor was appoint­ed to inves­ti­gate the tor­ture. But after a four year, $7 mil­lion inves­ti­ga­tion, he too refused to indict, instead issu­ing what is wide­ly con­sid­ered to be a white­wash report that absolved Daley, Devine, and numer­ous high Chica­go police officials.

Final­ly, in 2008 the U.S. Attor­ney indict­ed Burge for per­jury and obstruc­tion of jus­tice, and he was con­vict­ed in 2010, and sen­tenced to 4 ½ years in prison. How­ev­er, the U.S. Attor­ney has sub­se­quent­ly declined to pros­e­cute Burge’s con­fed­er­ates for sim­i­lar offenses.

New Orleans

Chica­go is by no means an iso­lat­ed exam­ple of how dif­fi­cult it is to obtain jus­tice for wan­ton police vio­lence through the judi­cial sys­tem. In New Orleans, a crew of white detec­tives respond­ed to the killing of a white police offi­cer in 1980 by ter­ror­iz­ing the black com­mu­ni­ty of Algiers, killing four inno­cent peo­ple and tor­tur­ing numer­ous oth­ers by book­ing and bag­ging” them: beat­ing sus­pects with tele­phone books and suf­fo­cat­ing them with bags over their heads.

Sev­en offi­cers were indict­ed by the Depart­ment of Jus­tice for civ­il rights vio­la­tions aris­ing from the tor­ture of one of the vic­tims and three were con­vict­ed. No offi­cers were charged for the four killings or for the oth­er acts of torture.

In 2005, in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na, an NOPD offi­cer fatal­ly shot an unarmed black man named Hen­ry Glover, then sev­er­al of his fel­low offi­cers burned his body to cov­er-up their crime. NOPD offi­cers also shot and killed two unarmed black men on the Danziger Bridge.

After state author­i­ties botched their inves­ti­ga­tion, the Civ­il Rights Divi­sion of the Jus­tice Depart­ment indict­ed the offi­cers involved in the two cas­es and obtained con­vic­tions of some of the main police actors. How­ev­er, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Cir­cuit over­turned the ver­dict in the Glover case, and the tri­al judge, cit­ing gov­ern­ment mis­con­duct, took the extra­or­di­nary step of grant­i­ng the con­vict­ed offi­cers a new tri­al in the Danziger case. 

New York

In 1997, an NYPD offi­cer sex­u­al­ly assault­ed a Hait­ian-Amer­i­can man named Abn­er Louima in a precinct sta­tion bath­room by shov­ing a bro­ken broom­stick up his rec­tum. Louima’s attack­er was sub­se­quent­ly charged with fed­er­al civ­il rights vio­la­tions, while three of his police accom­plices were charged with cov­er­ing up the crimes.

After Louima’s attack­er plead­ed guilty, his accom­plices were con­vict­ed, but the Sec­ond Cir­cuit Court of Appeals over­turned their con­vic­tions on the grounds that the lawyers who rep­re­sent­ed the offi­cers had a con­flict of inter­est. After they were con­vict­ed a sec­ond time, the Appeals Court again over­turned their con­vic­tions — this time on the basis that there was insuf­fi­cient evi­dence of intent.

In 1999, four offi­cers from the NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit fired 41 shots at Amadou Dial­lo, a Guinean immi­grant who was reach­ing for his wal­let, hit­ting him 19 times. The offi­cers were indict­ed for sec­ond degree mur­der and the case was moved to upstate New York, where a jury acquit­ted the officers. 

In July of this year, NYPD offi­cers arrest­ed an African-Amer­i­can man named Eric Gar­ner, alleged­ly for sell­ing untaxed cig­a­rettes. They put a pro­hib­it­ed choke­hold on him, forced him to the ground face first with his hands behind his back, and shoved his face into the pave­ment, where he died a few min­utes lat­er of a heart attack. The dead­ly assault, which was cap­tured on video­tape, is now under inves­ti­ga­tion by a Spe­cial Grand Jury empan­eled by the Dis­trict Attorney’s Office.

Los Ange­les

Among the most noto­ri­ous cas­es was the bru­tal 1991 beat­ing of Rod­ney King by five LAPD offi­cers. A video­tape cap­tured most of the bru­tal­i­ty and also showed sev­er­al oth­er offi­cers stand­ing by and doing noth­ing to stop the pum­mel­ing of a defense­less black man.

Four offi­cers were charged at the state lev­el with assault with a dead­ly weapon and use of exces­sive force. The tri­al was moved to a pre­dom­i­nant­ly white sub­ur­ban coun­ty, and three of the offi­cers were acquit­ted of all charges, while the fourth was acquit­ted of assault with a dead­ly weapon and oth­er less­er charges. But the jury failed to reach a ver­dict on his use of exces­sive force.

After an angry upris­ing in the Africa- Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty of Los Ange­les that left 53 dead and around 2,000 injured, the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment indict­ed the four offi­cers, and a fed­er­al jury con­vict­ed two of them, while acquit­ting the oth­er two.

This past August, LAPD offi­cers fatal­ly shot an unarmed men­tal­ly ill African-Amer­i­can man named Ezell Ford, who wit­ness­es said was shot in the back while lying on the ground. Despite mas­sive protests, there has been no grand jury inves­ti­ga­tion to date, the autop­sy report is yet to be released, and the LAPD has not com­plet­ed its investigation.

Oak­land

In Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia in the late 1990s, a unit of police offi­cers dubbed the Rough Rid­ers” sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly beat, framed and plant­ed nar­cotics on African Amer­i­cans whom they claimed were deal­ing drugs. Four of the Rid­ers” were indict­ed by the Dis­trict Attorney’s Office, and the tri­al was moved to a sub­ur­ban coun­ty. The ring­leader fled the coun­try, and was tried in absentia.

After a year-long tri­al before a bit­ter­ly divid­ed jury on which there were no blacks, the offi­cers were acquit­ted of eight charges, and the jury was hung on the remain­ing 27 counts. At the urg­ing of then-May­or Jer­ry Brown, the offi­cers were not re-tried.

Also in Oak­land, in the ear­ly morn­ing hours of New Years Day, 2009, a BART offi­cer shot and killed a young black man named Oscar Grant, who was lying face down, unarmed, in a busy tran­sit sta­tion. The shoot­ing was video­taped, and led to mil­i­tant protests in Oakland.

Anoth­er jury with no black mem­bers reject­ed the charge of mur­der and instead found the offi­cer guilty of invol­un­tary manslaugh­ter. As a result, Oscar Grant’s killer spent less than a year behind bars. The Depart­ment of Jus­tice sub­se­quent­ly opened a civ­il rights inves­ti­ga­tion, but no charges were brought.

Mil­wau­kee

From 2007 – 2012 in Mil­wau­kee, a unit of white police offi­cers, spurred on by the Department’s Comp­Stat pro­gram of aggres­sive polic­ing, stopped and ille­gal­ly body cav­i­ty searched more than 70 African-Amer­i­can men whom they claimed to be inves­ti­gat­ing for drug deal­ing. In con­duct­ing these search­es, most com­mon­ly per­formed on the street, the search­ing offi­cer reached inside the men’s under­wear, and probed their anus­es and genitals.

After this high­ly ille­gal prac­tice came to light, the unit’s ring­leader, Michael Vagni­ni, was indict­ed by the Mil­wau­kee Coun­ty Dis­trict Attor­ney on numer­ous counts of sex­u­al assault, ille­gal search­es, and offi­cial mis­con­duct, while three of the oth­er unit offi­cers were also charged for par­tic­i­pat­ing in two of the search­es. The unit’s sergeant and sev­er­al oth­er mem­bers of the unit, all of whom were present for many of the search­es, were not charged.

The charged offi­cers were per­mit­ted to plead guilty to the less­er includ­ed offens­es of offi­cial mis­con­duct and ille­gal strip search­es, with Vagni­ni receiv­ing a 36-month sen­tence while the oth­er three received sen­tences that totaled, col­lec­tive­ly, less than a month in jail. By plead­ing guilty, they also received promis­es that they would not be charged with fed­er­al civ­il rights violations.

Pat­tern and Prac­tice Investigations

These high pro­file cas­es rep­re­sent only the tip of the ice­berg when it comes to cas­es where racist police vio­lence has not been sub­ject­ed to equal jus­tice under the law.

Recent­ly, the Jus­tice Depart­ment declined to pros­e­cute Lit­tle Rock, Arkansas, offi­cers who shot and killed Eugene Elli­son, an elder­ly African Amer­i­can man who was walk­ing out of his home with a cane in his hand, while there have been doc­u­ment­ed reports of unarmed black men recent­ly being shot down by the police in Chica­go; Hous­ton; San Anto­nio; Beaver Creek, Ohio; and Sara­so­ta, Flori­da.

In 1994, the Unit­ed States Con­gress, rec­og­niz­ing that police mis­con­duct and vio­lence was sys­temic in many parts of the coun­try, passed 42 U.S. Code Sec­tion 14141, which empow­ered the Jus­tice Depart­ment to file suit against police depart­ments alleg­ing pat­terns and prac­tices of uncon­sti­tu­tion­al con­duct, and to obtain wide rang­ing court orders, con­sent decrees, and inde­pen­dent mon­i­tors in order to imple­ment reforms to those practices.

Although under­staffed, the Pat­tern and Prac­tice Unit of the Jus­tice Depart­ment has attacked sys­temic and dis­crim­i­na­to­ry defi­cien­cies in police hir­ing, super­vi­sion, and mon­i­tor­ing in numer­ous police depart­ments over the past 20 years. A par­tic­u­lar­ly egre­gious act or series of acts of police vio­lence often prompts the Unit to ini­ti­ate an inves­ti­ga­tion, and its lawyers have obtained con­sent decrees or court orders in Cincin­nati, Pitts­burgh, Steubenville, Ohio, New Orleans, Puer­to Rico, Oak­land, and Miami.

Last month, lawyers han­dling the Lit­tle Rock cas­es request­ed that the DOJ do a pat­tern and inves­ti­ga­tion of the LRPD, and the Unit is report­ed­ly now inves­ti­gat­ing the prac­tices of the Fer­gu­son Police Depart­ment. While these inves­ti­ga­tions are not a panacea, they offer a mech­a­nism for expos­ing and reform­ing bla­tant­ly uncon­sti­tu­tion­al police prac­tices, and have also demon­strat­ed how per­va­sive the prob­lem sys­temic police vio­lence con­tin­ues to be.

In light of this his­to­ry, the pre-ordained fail­ure of a biased local pros­e­cu­tor to obtain an indict­ment against Dar­ren Wil­son should not sur­prise us. But the move­ment for jus­tice for Michael Brown has brought wide­spread atten­tion to the nation­wide prob­lem of sys­temic and racist police vio­lence and high­light­ed the move­ment that has come togeth­er to bat­tle against it.

Just two weeks ago, the Brown case, along with the Burge tor­ture cas­es, was pre­sent­ed to the Unit­ed Nations Com­mit­tee Against Tor­ture in Gene­va. The move­ment should now turn its atten­tion to the Depart­ment of Jus­tice, demand­ing a fed­er­al civ­il rights indict­ment against Wil­son a full scale pat­tern and prac­tice inves­ti­ga­tion of the Fer­gu­son Police Depart­ment, and, more broad­ly, an end to sys­temic and racist police violence.

As the his­to­ry of the bat­tle against racist police vio­lence so point­ed­ly teach­es, the pub­lic out­cry and agi­ta­tion must con­tin­ue not only in Fer­gu­son but across the nation. Because as Fred­er­ick Dou­glas right­ly stat­ed many years ago, pow­er con­cedes noth­ing with­out a demand. 

Flint Tay­lor is a found­ing part­ner of the People’s Law Office in Chica­go. He is one of the lawyers for the fam­i­lies of slain Black Pan­ther lead­ers Fred Hamp­ton and Mark Clark, and togeth­er with his law part­ner Jef­frey Haas was tri­al coun­sel in the marathon 1976 civ­il tri­al. He has also rep­re­sent­ed many sur­vivors of Chica­go police tor­ture, was involved in the strug­gle for repa­ra­tions, and has done bat­tle with the Chica­go Police Depart­ment — and the Fra­ter­nal Order of Police — on numer­ous occa­sions over his 45 year career as a people’s lawyer
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