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Alton Sterling Case Raises Questions About Prosecution Of Police Officers


The decision not to charge the officers in Baton Rouge has angered activists who say prosecutors are too deferential toward cops and are too quick to let them off. We've heard that complaint often since 2014 when a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a black man in Ferguson, Mo.

And joining us now to talk about prosecutors and police is NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste. And Martin, does the Justice Department decision not to prosecute in Baton Rouge surprise you?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: No, it doesn't. I mean federal prosecutors really aren't in the business of bringing conventional murder or manslaughter charges. You know, that's really up to the state. The feds - when they bring charges, it's if they see evidence of a constitutional violation, a willful deprivation of someone's civil rights. In this case, they probably would have had to shown that the officers wanted to shoot Sterling, and I think that's - that would have been really hard to prove.

SIEGEL: Well, federal prosecutors did bring charges against an officer in another shooting incident, Michael Slager, who killed Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., two years ago. Just yesterday, Slager pleaded guilty in federal court. Why did the feds pursue that case?

KASTE: Yeah, it's really tempting to compare these two cases as they're kind of coming up to our attention right now. Both these incidents, you know, were caught on video. They were - both involved victims who were black men. Both of them at the time of the shootings generated a lot of community anger. But the key difference here is that Walter Scott in South Carolina - he was shot when he was running away from the officer. Alton Sterling, on the other hand, was shot during this struggle with officers. And it also appeared, at least to the officers, that he was going for a gun.

And that's really the key in most of these cases. When officers shoot someone, what prosecutors look at is whether the officers had reasonable belief that they were in danger or that someone else was in grievous danger from the suspect. That's the constitutional standard in the country. The courts aren't supposed to just judge a cop on whether the cop was actually in danger with hindsight. They're judged on what the cops had reason to believe at that moment.

And I think that's where a lot of this tension comes from - is that the public looks at cases, say, when a cop shoots someone who's reaching for his waistband and later on there's no gun - you know, the cop says, I had reason to believe there was a gun there - to the public, that looks like someone unarmed was killed. And sometimes these cases are called lawful but awful.

SIEGEL: Well, looking at these cases, can you say whether prosecutors have become more willing to charge police officers post-Ferguson?

KASTE: Well, there's this academic at Bowling State - Bowling Green State University, Phil Stinson. He's a former police officer himself, and he's been counting prosecutions over the years of officers in both federal and state courts - counting the number of times officers have been charged with manslaughter or murder. And he says, you know, in 2015, there were 18 cops charged nationwide, and that was actually the highest number he'd seen in 13 years. He thought there might be there a post-Ferguson increase. But then in 2016, it went down to 13 officers.

These are really small numbers, so statistically it's hard to say whether they mean anything long-term. But there is a sense here that the numbers of prosecutions are very low when you look at the total number of people shot every year - shot and killed - around a thousand a year.

SIEGEL: Well, a big change with this decision is that it's under the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who's expressed doubts about federal intervention in local police matters. Have Sessions' words had some impact on the willingness of prosecutors to pursue charges against officers?

KASTE: Really tough to say. I mean as I said, this is a state matter. Usually the feds do play a role. They often come in and provide an extra set of eyes which gives the community some sense at least there's someone else checking their work. There is some sense here that the attorney general does believe in prosecuting individual officers who violate civil rights however that, you know, his real objection has been going after departments as a whole with these consent decrees.

SIEGEL: That's NPR law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste. Martin, thanks.

KASTE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "A WALK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.