“It’s remarkably rare for a police officer to face criminal charges for the misuse of force. We know that Chauvin had 22 complaints filed against him by the time he was arrested for Floyd’s death, and that he was allowed to remain with the MPD through all of them.
When it comes to fatal encounters, we have a slightly better idea of the disparity: Only about 139 officers since 2005 have been charged with murder or manslaughter in relation to an on-duty shooting, though about 1,000 fatal police shootings occur each year. Of the officers charged, a small minority are convicted.
Counting fatal encounters omits many more victims of police misconduct who live to tell about it. The data we do have paints an incomplete but unsettling picture, as police departments often refuse to make public reports against officers. A report from ProPublica is instructive: “In 2018, the [Civilian Complaint Review Board] looked into about 3,000 allegations of misuse of force [in the New York Police Department],” wrote Eric Urmansky last summer. “It was able to substantiate 73 of those allegations. The biggest punishment? Nine officers who lost vacation days.”
In other words, people whose rights are violated by police can’t always count on the criminal courts or even police departments to reprimand their employees; civil suits are often the only avenue to justice. Yet thanks to qualified immunity, those individuals often find that road blocked off, too.
The legal doctrine, manufactured by the Supreme Court, protects government officials from federal civil rights lawsuits if the official’s specific behavior was not “clearly established” as a rights violation in a precedent handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court or by another court within the same circuit. In other words, for a plaintiff to sue a police officer in federal court, a prior plaintiff must’ve already sued over the exact same violation and won. Any plaintiff who sues after being harmed in a remotely unique way risks being told that the officer who harmed them could not have been expected to know they were violating the Constitution.”
“Chauvin might seem like an example unbefitting of this discussion—the City of Minneapolis settled with Floyd’s family for a reported $27 million. Had the case not been filmed and highly publicized, as in the above examples, that might not have happened.
“Incredibly, had the city not chosen to settle the lawsuit, Derek Chauvin would have had a very plausible chance of getting the suit thrown out on qualified immunity grounds—even after being convicted of murder,” says Clark Neily, vice president for criminal justice at the Cato Institute. “There is no preexisting case in the Eighth Circuit under which it was ‘clearly established’ that pinning a suspect under one’s knee for nearly ten minutes until they lose consciousness and their heart stops beating violates the Fourth Amendment.”
The video footage here was the game-changer—something that victims aren’t always afforded. It’s also something that government officials may take issue with. In 2014, officers in Denver, Colorado, attempted to force a bystander to delete a film he took of them beating a suspect during an arrest. Though a federal court ruled those cops violated the First Amendment in doing so, it gave them qualified immunity.”