Police Officer Acquittals and Hung Juries: Not Necessarily a Bad Thing

University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing just had his second trial for the murder of Samuel DeBose end in a hung jury. In Minnesota, Saint Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted for the killing of Philando Castile. In Wisconsin, Milwaukee Police Officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown was acquitted in the reckless homicide of Sylville Smith. Tulsa Police Officer Betty Jo Shelby was found not guilty of manslaughter. Hummelstown, Pennsylvania Police Officer Lisa Mearkle acquitted of murder. Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo, acquitted. North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager, mistrial on state murder charge. I could go on and on.

When you have a police officer shoot and kill someone, it has been extremely rare that the officer is criminally charged, but that’s changing. It is believed that Yanez is the first Minnesota police officer that has faced trial for an on-duty shooting. Shelby was the first Tulsa officer prosecuted for an on-duty shooting. It’s rare, but things are changing, and that’s a good sign. As a society, we need to hold police officers accountable, and to do that, we put them in front of a jury, in front of our fellow citizens, who we entrust to do their duty and determine if the state has proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

If the state hasn’t met it’s burden, then the officer is found not guilty—but that doesn’t mean everything ends well for the officer. Yanez, Brelo, and Heaggan-Brown are out of a job and will likely never work in law enforcement again. Shelby has been pulled off of the street and put in a desk job. Slager pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges. None will ever be the same.

Some will complain that the officers should have been convicted, that the jury gave them the benefit of the doubt.

OK. So what if they did? That’s what they are supposed to do for everyone. I’m good with that, and I’m good with the verdicts. We are not supposed to railroad these officers, we are supposed to try them, and give their case to a jury. That’s it.

And when more and more officers appear in front of a jury, you’ll start seeing officers being convicted, because the state will prove its case. You’ll start to see less of a break given to the officers by the jurors, because they will have seen more officers on trial.

At this point, getting the officers before the court is a win. Let’s not loose sight of that.

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6 thoughts on “Police Officer Acquittals and Hung Juries: Not Necessarily a Bad Thing

  1. Disclaimer: IANAL

    While I agree with you main conclusion, i.e. that bringing police officers who allegedly engage in misconduct to trial, I would like to ask what supports the conclusion that Yanez, Brelo, and Heaggan-Brown will never work in law enforcement again. I ask because I haven’t heard much to suggest that the practice of “gypsy cops” has ended, or even slowed down much.

    That Slager will never work in law enforcement is fairly obvious, and while Shelby’s at a desk job, she could eventually be back in the field, so i can see the lack of comment regarding their futures.

    Finally, I do have a quibble with the notion that the police getting the benefit of the doubt being a good thing. Sure, that’s how the system’s /supposed/ to work for everyone, but if the only segment of society where that’s reliably the case is for the police, then that doesn’t exactly fill me with optimism; not when courtroom misconduct by the police and prosecution goes virtually unpunished, or seemingly so.

    Sure, degrading the system isn’t a good basis for reform, but it’s tempting to suggest it, if only to drag the police down to the same level of justice that the indigent they routinely arrest get. Seems like that’s much more do-able than fighting the police and prosecutors to ensure reforms are made to ensure that everyone gets the same treatment. Not what’s needed, but boy, it’s tempting.

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    1. Police departments tend to be risk-adverse hiring bodies. While gypsies exist, it is not as common now as it used to be.

      As to the rest, I don’t disagree with your position and understand your concerns.

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  2. If everyone got the same presumption of innocence from juries the police get we’d have a lot fewer people in prison.

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    1. You’re not going to have that happen, for the reasons that Scott and I both cover in the two subsequent posts at Simple Justice and here.

      It’s what should happen, but it won’t.

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