Fact Check: Are Prosecutors Too Quick To Let Off The Police? – Martin Kaste May 4, 20175:00 AM ET


A Baton Rouge, La. police officer redirects traffic away from a protest march following the death of Alton Sterling last July.

Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

The Justice Department decided not to charge the officers involved last July in the fatal shooting of a black man, Alton Sterling.

The decision is being met with anger by activists who say prosecutors are too deferential toward cops — and are too quick to let them off. That notion has been front and center since the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo., that followed the death of Michael Brown.

Here are four questions and answers you should know about whether that complaint is true:

1. Is the Justice Department’s explanation not to prosecute the Baton Rouge, La. officers surprising?

It’s not surprising. Federal prosecutors aren’t in the business of bringing normal murder or manslaughter charges — that’s the state’s responsibility. The feds bring charges only if they see evidence of constitutional violation — a willful deprivation of someone’s civil rights. In a case like this, they’d have to show the cops meant to kill Sterling, and that’s hard to prove.

2. Federal prosecutors did bring charges against an officer in another shooting incident — Michael Slager, who killed Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C. two years ago. Why did the feds pursue that case?

It’s tempting to compare these cases. Both incidents were caught on video, both victims were black men, both generated a lot of community anger. The key difference was Walter Scott was shot as he was running from the officer. Alton Sterling was shot in the middle of a struggle, and it appears officers thought he was going for a gun.

That’s the key in most of these cases of officers who shoot — what was the danger they reasonably perceived at the moment? That’s the constitutional standard in this country: Courts aren’t supposed to judge cops on whether they were actually in danger — they judge them on whether the cops reasonably believed they were in danger at that moment.

The public often sees these cases in which, say, a cop shoots someone for reaching for his waistband. There’s no gun, but prosecutors don’t charge because they know it’s enough if a cop can convincingly say he thought there was a gun. Informally, these cases are sometimes called “lawful but awful” — at least, awful from point of view of many in the public.

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