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Experts Agree Police Treated Differently In Criminal Justice System

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Joanna Richards
/
WCPN

Activists petitioned the Cuyahoga County prosecutor July 23, demanding charges against two Cleveland police officers involved in the death of Tamir Rice. The 12-year-old was shot in November after he was seen waving a realistic-looking toy gun. Activists calling themselves The Cleveland 8 have claimed the investigation shows cops get special treatment. 

Activists, prosecutors and legal experts all seems to agree that, yes, police do receive special treatment. But how and why cops get different treatment, and what that means brings a variety of views.

The thing is: police are different. And that can change how their cases are handled in several ways. One, for example: Their jobs inherently involve force. 

"They’re really the only civilian profession where we give them weapons, and tell them that as part of their duties as officers, they need to use them to protect us and themselves," said assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Matthew Meyer.

"Police officers have to be analyzed in terms of the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution to determine whether their actions were reasonable," he said. "Whether a reasonable officer, in that person’s position, would have felt the need to use deadly force under those circumstances."

Another example: Police use of force is seen through a different lens. The question is rarely, “Did the officer use force?” It’s whether that force was justified. 

This spring, Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo was acquitted for his role in a massive police chase and shooting that killed two unarmed people in 2012. His defense attorneys emphasized that police have to act fast to bring volatile situations under control.

Assistant Prosecutor Meyer says in police killings, it’s really difficult to prove the use of force wasn’t justified.

"Short of proving that someone should get the death penalty, I can’t think of another standard in criminal law that’s more difficult for us to satisfy," he said.

Another difference with police – one that activists highlight – is there’s an institutional relationship between the prosecutor’s office and police departments.

"I think part of some of the bad reactions over the last two years have come from a frustration where the system seems rigged against the citizen, or in favor of the police," said Michael Benza. He's a professor of criminal law at Case Western Reserve University’s law school.

He says many prosecutors – including Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty – are adopting the policy of sending every lethal police use-of-force case to a grand jury for review, as a layer of citizen oversight.

"So adding something that can make it look and be more fair, makes it better for the public to be able to say, ‘I don’t like it, but I can accept it,’" Benza said. 

Edward Little doesn’t accept it. He’s one of the Cleveland 8 activists.
 
"I think we do have to be mindful that he does control the process," he said.

Ever heard the saying that prosecutors “can indict a ham sandwich”? There’s a common perception that grand juries, held behind closed doors, are just tools of the prosecutor, and indictments are easy to get. So, activists find it suspicious that police aren’t indicted more often.

John Oebker, a former assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor, says in a way, it all boils down to: do you trust your elected official?

I think the proof is in the recent history in Cuyahoga County, where Prosecutor McGinty aggressively prosecuted officer Brelo," he said. "I think that’s an example of how police officers aren’t receiving special treatment."

Finally, the fourth reason police killings are different: the social and political ramifications. It’s been eight months since Tamir Rice was killed. Activists charge officials with dragging their feet.

Oebker agrees that with cops, the process is often slower, but he doesn’t think Rice’s death is being swept under the rug – just the opposite.

"Everyone is being very careful, because they know there’s a lot of eyes on this case," Oebker said.

Officials in the prosecutor’s office say it just takes more time to build a case against cops.

They say poor hires, bad tactics, inadequate training and equipment – a police department’s flaws can cause preventable, tragic deaths that still cannot be prosecuted as crimes. Cleveland’s police reform agreement with the U.S. Justice Department lays out a plan for improvement in all those areas.

But activists like Ed Little say that’s not enough – certainly not in the Tamir Rice case.

"If we can’t get an arrest and a charge in the shooting of a 12-year-old child, where and when can we get an arrest and a charge?"

Prosecutor McGinty has said it could be months before his office wraps up its investigation into the case.