SUNDAY, MARCH 13, 2016 · A7

Police officers need more latitude By the numbers
Over six months, the Tribune-
Review built a database from

than ordinary citizens, attorney says
nearly 3 million records drawn
from the Department of Justice’s
National Caseload Data.
The Trib analyzed criminal com-
plaints by the calendar year when
CIVIL RIGHTS · FROM A6 they were filed. Any decisions to
decline or prosecute are listed un-
“The standard is high and challeng- der the calendar year the file was
ing,” said Alan Vinegrad, a former opened. The newspaper chose to
federal prosecutor from the Eastern trace prosecution decisions from
District of New York who oversaw 2015 back to 1995 — a year after
criminal civil rights cases. passage of the Violent Crime
“It’s got to be a willful deprivation Control and Law Enforcement
Act, the most-sweeping crime bill
of rights, meaning the police officer
in the nation’s history.
intended and wanted to either kill or On civil rights matters involving
injure the person,” said Vinegrad, law enforcement officers, the Trib
now a partner at the law firm of Cov- found:
ington & Burling LLP in New York.
“Not just ‘it was reckless or negligent’
• No matter how many refer-
rals prosecutors received, they
or anything like that.” consistently declined more than
U.S. attorneys nationwide generally 90 percent of them.
have the authority to decline refer- • Overall, prosecutors received
rals on their own. In civil rights cases referrals involving 21,364 law
when an officer has killed someone, SEATTLE POLICE DEPARTMENT enforcement officers. They won
when the case has been tried in a local Seattle police Officer Ian Birk fatally shot John T. Williams, a Native American convictions against 631 of them
court or has gained national notoriety, woodcarver, four times in 2010 after seeing him crossing a street holding a piece over 21 years.
U.S. attorneys must coordinate with of wood in his left hand and a knife in his right. A Seattle Firearms Review Board • Prosecutors in 11 federal
the assistant attorney general for civil districts received a total of 240
determined the shooting was unjustified, but federal prosecutors and the King referrals yet never charged a
rights in Washington, who has the County, Wash., prosecutor declined to charge Birk with a crime. Birk later resigned.
final decision. single officer from 1995-2015.
The districts are: Alaska, Colo-
During the Obama administration, liams four times as he collapsed to the and do the job?” rado, Central Illinois, Southern
federal prosecutors have declined sidewalk, according to a Seattle police Beyond proving intent, prosecutors Iowa, Maine, Western Michigan,
referrals for civil rights prosecution firearms review board memorandum. have practical reasons for not charg- New Jersey, North Dakota, Ver-
of officers 93 percent of the time. The board determined the shooting ing officers, legal experts said. mont, Eastern Washington and
The “willful” standard is too high, was “unjustified and outside of policy, “There’s first of all the general Wyoming.
former Attorney General Eric Holder tactics and training.” Birk lacked reluctance on the part of prosecutors • Twelve federal districts
said last year. He talked about recom- probable cause to believe Williams to go after people in law enforcement received a total of 671 referrals
mending changes before leaving office posed a threat, he had other reason- because they consider themselves over 21 years, but prosecuted one
but did not. able alternatives, and would have all working on the same team,” said officer each in Southern Alabama,
Now in private practice at Coving- done better to let Williams get away Tim Lynch, director of the Project on Southern Georgia, Northern
ton & Burling’s Washington office, than to kill him, the board ruled. Criminal Justice at Cato Institute, a Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska,
Holder declined a Trib request for an Yet when federal prosecutors think-tank in Washington that advo- Nevada, Northern Oklahoma,
interview. Oregon, South Dakota, Western
investigated, they found insufficient cates for smaller government. Virginia, Western Washington
evidence to prove that Birk “acted Prosecutors also know that juries and Western Wisconsin districts.
Specific intent
Even when investigators determine
willfully and with the deliberate and
specific intent to do something the
tend to look favorably on police
officers and might be reluctant to
• Prosecutors in Northern
Mississippi brought 24 civil rights
a police officer was not justified in law forbids.” convict, Futterman, at the University cases against officers, the most
shooting someone, federal prosecu- Prosecutors declined to charge him of Chicago, said. of any district, winning 20, or 83
tors must prove the officer’s intent with a crime. Even with video or other strong percent of them. Western Ten-
under the Supreme Court’s ruling. Birk resigned from the police force. evidence, the defense can argue the nessee had the second-highest
Seattle police Officer Ian Birk shot “There was enough conflict between officer believed the dead person was total with 22 cases, successfully
and killed Native American woodcarver the civilian witnesses as to what was armed or was a threat, or that the of- prosecuting 20 (91 percent).
John T. Williams after seeing him walk actually happening on the street cor- ficer had only a split-second to make a • Eighteen districts accounted
through a crosswalk, looking down ner that there was simply no way that decision. Actions based on fear, panic, for 270 civil rights cases or more
at his hands. Williams held a piece of a prosecution was going to be success- misperception or even poor judgment than half of the total 530 cases
wood in his left hand as he worked at it ful on a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt do not equate to willful conduct, the brought against officers between
with a knife in his right, dashcam video standard,” Ted Buck, Birk’s lawyer, Justice Department commonly says in 1995 and 2015. In ranked order
shows. told the Trib. declining to charge officers. they are: Northern Mississippi,
Birk stopped at a red light. He pulled Police officers need more latitude Western Tennessee, Northern
his patrol car to the curb, flipped on its than ordinary citizens because of the First of a series. Coming Monday: Georgia, Southern Mississippi,
emergency lights and jumped out with jobs they are asked to do, he added. Civil rights cases involving law Central California, Maryland, East-
his service weapon in his right hand “They’re asked to respond to situ- ern Arkansas, Connecticut, New
enforcement in Western Pennsylvania Mexico, Middle Florida, Southern
as he walked after Williams. ations that are rapidly evolving, that and the impact of video. California, Eastern Tennessee,
“Hey!” Birk shouted, without identi- require split-second decision mak- Western Texas, Western Louisi-
fying himself as a police officer. “Hey! ing,” Buck said. Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach ana, Eastern Louisiana, Southern
Hey! Put the knife down!” He repeated “If we don’t give them protections him at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com. Florida, Eastern Michigan and
the command two more times quickly. along the lines of a showing of malice Andrew Conte is a member of the Tribune-Review Eastern Texas. Some cases in-
Within ten seconds of first calling or something like that, then who in investigations team. Reach him at 412-320-7835 or volve more than one officer as a
out, Birk opened fire, hitting Wil- their right mind would go out there andrewconte@tribweb.com. defendant.

ISIS uses low-grade mustard gas
ISIS · FROM A1 oratories and equipment, and
further special forces raids
American and Iraqi officials targeting chemical weapons
said U.S. special forces cap- experts are planned, the of-
tured the head of the ISIS unit ficials said. They spoke on
trying to develop chemical condition of anonymity.
weapons in a raid last month ISIS is believed to have set
in northern Iraq. up a special unit for chemical
The U.S.-led coalition said weapons research made up of
the chemicals ISIS has used in- Iraqi scientists who worked
clude chlorine and a low-grade on weapons programs under
sulfur mustard, which is not Saddam Hussein.
very potent. “It’s a legitimate The group is believed to
threat. It’s not a high threat. have created limited amounts
We’re not, frankly, losing too of mustard gas. Tests con-
much sleep over it,” Army Col. firmed mustard gas was used
Steve Warren said. in a town in Syria when ISIS
Experts say the extremist was launching attacks there
AP
group appears incapable of in August. There have been
launching a large-scale chemi- Fatima Samir, 3, was killed in unverified reports of ISIS us-
cal weapons attack, which re- a chemical attack in Taza, ing chemical agents on battle-
quires not only expertise, but 10 miles south of Kirkuk. fields in Syria and Iraq.
also proper equipment, ma- Separately, attacks across
terials and a supply-chain to infrastructure with airstrikes Baghdad on Saturday killed
produce enough of the chemi- and special operations raids 13 and wounded 27. The at-
cal agent to pose a significant two months ago, Iraqi intelli- tacks were mostly carried out
threat. gence officials and a Western with homemade bombs placed
The coalition began target- security official said. along roads in the capital’s
ing ISIS’ chemical weapons Airstrikes are targeting lab- south and east.

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