Recently, here in the state of Washington, King County prosecutors announced that they would not charge Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk for the shooting death of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams despite a police firearms review board deciding that the shooting was unjustified. In this case, prosecutors cited Washington State law which they say sets such a high bar against prosecuting police officers in such cases that they could not charge Birk even though his actions appeared negligent at best.
While most legal experts cited in the news confirmed that Washington’s laws, which require a nearly impossible burden of proving malicious intent to charge an officer who kills in the line of duty, could be a plausible reason for refusing to prosecute Birk. Other experts also cited how difficult it is in general to prosecute a police officer anywhere in the US for any reason, especially when the alleged criminal act occurred on duty. But this presents us with a question; could this be just a Washington problem or is this indicative of a much more systemic problem in the US?
The National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project has been gathering data including criminal cases against law enforcement officers for nearly two years, perhaps the answer to some of these questions resides within that data.
To establish a baseline we can look to the latest data released by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) which indicates that the conviction rate for members of the general public who were tried on criminal charges ranged around 68% from 2002 through 2006. Furthermore, the US BJS reports indicated that the incarceration rate remained fairly stable at an average of 70% and the average length of post-conviction incarceration for the general public was 49 months.
For a comparison we can use data from our National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project (NPMSRP) which tracked over 8,300 credible reports involving allegations of police misconduct in the US from April of 2009 through December 2010 which involved nearly 11,000 law enforcement officers within those 21 months. Of those reported allegations, only 3,238 resulted in criminal charges against law enforcement officers. Of those 3,238 criminal cases against law enforcement officers in the US, only 1,063 officers were ultimately convicted of those charges or reduced charges associated with the original allegations. Of the law enforcement officers who were ultimately convicted, 36% were ultimately sentenced to spend any time incarcerated and the average length of incarceration for those sentenced to prison or jail was approximately 34.6 months.