VICE News is closely watching policing in America. Check out the Officer Involved blog here.
Following the failure of grand juries in Ferguson, New York, Ohio, and Milwaukee to bring charges against police officers in four separate fatal shootings of young black men, federal authorities are exploring whether federal charges could be brought against the cops. The Department of Justice (DOJ), FBI, and the US attorney's office are examining the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and John Crawford III, while the DOJ is reviewing the killing of Dontre Hamilton — all four men were unarmed when they were shot dead by police this year.
Theoretically, the officers could face charges under a federal "color of law" statute, if it can be shown that the cops violated the deceased men's constitutional rights. As the Guardian noted Wednesday, however, the statue has "only occasionally" been used to indict officers in shooting and brutality cases. Notably, the LAPD officers who brutalized Rodney King were acquitted on state charges but later convicted under the federal statute for violating his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable arrest and depriving him of his 14th Amendment due-process rights.
In the cases currently under consideration, federal prosecutors would have to show that the officers involved "acted with the specific intent to use more force than was reasonably necessary under the circumstances," as American University law professor William Yeoman's told the Guardian. Yeomans noted that it is "very rare" that deprivation of rights under the color of law in police in shootings is proven.
While the federal investigations specifically address whether the individuals' civil rights were violated, the impetus for prosecution under color of law cannot be racially driven. While Brown, Crawford, Garner, and Hamilton's deaths have all raised urgent questions of racism in US policing, the already unlikely federal charges would have to be brought without reference to race. In the King case, as political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson has pointed out on the Huffington Post, "There would have been absolutely no chance to bring, let alone get, convictions of the officers if there had been even the remotest public hint that race was the sole reason for the federal prosecution. The Justice Department had to bring, argue and try to win their convictions exclusively on the evidence and testimony that the cops violated the federal statutes in beating King."
Hutchinson argued that the same considerations applied to the King case should equally concern the Mike Brown shooting in Ferguson and should thus lead to federal charges against former cop Darren Wilson. "Brown as was King was unarmed. Brown and King were not charged with a crime when detained. Brown as King received injuries after he ceased resisting. Brown as King was abused during an official stop. These, as they were with King, are compelling civil rights violations," he wrote.
The Guardian reported that it will be some time — months or years — before the federal inquiries come to any conclusions.