Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
The already difficult task of prosecuting police officers accused of criminal offenses is compounded by Georgia state law that allows special privileges for public officials, including police officers, during grand jury proceedings.53 Defendant police officers are allowed to be present, with legal counsel, throughout the proceedings. At the conclusion of the hearing, the defendant may make a statement to the jurors, while the prosecutors are not allowed to rebut the officer's account. Experts interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that these procedures are unique and were unaware of other states in which public officials are granted these privileges.54
Prosecutors dislike the special rules for public officials, and acknowledge that they serve as a barrier in their prosecution efforts.55 The chief of special litigation of the Georgia Attorney General's office objects to the special treatment and believes it is "outrageous that public officials are given greater rights than those provided to ordinary citizens. It gives them a shot to prevent indictment at a stage when no one else has that right."56 He believes that public officials might be entitled to a small privilege, but testimony the state cannot rebut "is wrong."57
The Fulton County District Attorney's office may share that view, following a grand jury's decision not to indict the officers involved in the Jerry Jackson shooting.58 The defendants were able to gain the sympathy and support of the grand jurors. Not only did the jurors decide not to indict; one juror told reporters that she thought the officers "should be given medals" for their hard work.59
A spokesperson with the Fulton County District Attorney's office, Melvin Jones, told Human Rights Watch that he could recall only three cases, including the Jackson shooting, prosecuted by the district attorney during the past five years.60 He stated that few excessive-force cases reach the stage of charges being filed becausethey seem to "wash out" with the OPS When asked why he believes the cases do not hold up, Jones stated that it's "the police looking out for themselves."61
In another case, Roderick Stewart reportedly sustained a black eye and other injuries after Atlanta police officers stopped his vehicle on the evening of November 5, 1993, following a two-mile chase, because they suspected he was driving under the influence of alcohol; officers also reportedly had seen Stewart push someone from his car in a parking lot. The unusual aspect of this case was that the alleged beating was videotaped by cameras mounted on the police vehicles. After viewing the tape, then-Police Chief Eldrin Bell stated, "The tape shows excessive force was used."62
Despite the videotaped beating, a Fulton County grand jury chose not indict the accused officer on an aggravated assault charge. After the grand jury failed to indict the officer, the Fulton County District Attorney stated, "The grand jury just isn't after police officers."63 In 1996, Stewart received $185,000 from the city in a pre-trial settlement.64
In 1996, of the twenty cases decided by federal prosecutors for the federal district containing Atlanta (Northern District of Georgia), four were prosecuted (presented to a grand jury to seek an indictment) and sixteen were declined for prosecution. Between 1992 and 1995, 133 cases were considered and none was prosecuted.65
Following the reaction to the Rodney King beating case in Los Angeles, the FBI initiated a four-hour civil rights training course for new and current police officersfrom throughout Georgia. Jerry Miles of the FBI's Atlanta office noted that four hours are not enough, but stated that police chiefs do not want to lose officers for a full day.66 While much of the information provided in the course's lesson plan is useful, statements such as "civil rights investigations account for less than one percent of the FBI's investigative efforts" and "historically ninety-five percent of the civil rights allegations made to the FBI are determined to be unfounded," seem intended to reassure police officers that they should not fear investigation or prosecution by federal authorities.67 Further, while the lesson plan states the FBI is unbiased in such investigations, a section of the plan provides defenses available to officers accused of brutality.
The Holder case, described above, shows the pressure federal investigators can bring to bear on police departments to discipline officers appropriately. According to attorneys representing the Holder family, there was little progress in the internal investigation until federal investigators began asking questions.
53 Police officers are accorded the same rights as public officials in the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (O.C.G.A.) Title 17-7-52, which refers to Title 45-11-4, describing special grand jury procedures for public officials.
54 According to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' grand jury expert David S. Rudolph of Rudolph and Maher, Chapel, South Carolina and Prof. Frederick Lawrence, Boston University School of Law.
55 Georgia state law does not contain a statute specifically addressing use of force by peace officers. The statutes which address use of force are generic and apply to use of force by any person. O.C.G.A. 16-3-21, 16-3-23 and 16-3-24.
58 See The State v. Waine L. Pinckney and Willie T. Sauls, Murder, felony murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (eight counts) No Bill (no indictment), February 8, 1996, Fulton County Superior Court, NB 003050. Most of Atlanta is part of Fulton County.
60 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Melvin Jones, spokesperson with the Fulton County District Attorney's office, April 1, 1996. It is worth noting that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the OPS have reported that files regarding police shootings sent to the district attorney's office in recent years have been lost, which may help explain the lack of action in such cases.
61 Ibid. Human Rights Watch attempted to obtain the number of criminal prosecutions against police officers, but no such tracking was done by the district attorney's office at that time; there were plans to institute a policy of tracking these cases. Telephone inquiry, district attorney's office, August 1997.
65 According to data obtained by TRAC from the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, Justice Department. Cases prosecuted or declined represent only a portion of the total number of complaints alleging federal criminal civil rights violations referred to each district in a given year. Several steps prior to this decision narrow down the number of complaints actually received to those considered worthy of consideration.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch