“Police officers tend to get the benefit of the doubt,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “African-Americans tend not to get the benefit of the doubt when police officers say they are dangerous or threatening or violent.”
Prosecutors and defense lawyers agree that persuading a jury to convict a police officer is difficult. “They think even if a cop made a mistake, they were just trying to do their job,” said Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor who teaches race relations and the law at Georgetown University Law Center. That predisposition seeps into charging decisions because Justice Department rules require prosecutors to be confident that they will win at trial.
During the Obama administration, the Justice Department declined to prosecute police officers in Pasco, Wash., who chased and shot to death an unarmed man who had been throwing rocks at them. A Seattle officer faced no charges for killing a Native American woodcarver who the police chief later said posed no threat. And, in the case that set off the debate about race and policing, Darren Wilson, an officer in Ferguson, Mo., was cleared in the shooting death of Michael Brown.
The decision in Mr. Sterling’s death was set in motion under the Obama administration. Prosecutors have known for months that it would be extremely difficult to bring charges, particularly because Mr. Sterling had a gun.
“The federal government doesn’t prosecute when they don’t have the evidence for a conviction, and not having evidence for a conviction is a far cry from letting a bad cop off the hook,” said James Pasco, senior adviser to the president of the Fraternal Order of Police. The union endorsed Mr. Sessions as well as President Trump, who campaigned on ending what he saw as a “war on police.”
Civil rights groups complained about such decisions for years, but their criticism was often overshadowed by the Obama administration’s investigation of systemic police abuses. The Justice Department opened two dozen investigations into police departments, forcing changes in how officers are trained, make arrests and use force.
Mr. Sessions was unsparing in his criticism of those investigations, and though he does not want to use the power of the Justice Department to demand such broad policy changes, he has said he does not plan to change the department’s approach to individual police abuses. “We will punish any police conduct that violates civil rights,” Mr. Sessions wrote in an op-ed in USA Today last month.
But critics say Mr. Sessions is avoiding addressing the underlying problems in departments. “The best test of what the Sessions Justice Department is going to do about police misconduct isn’t going to come from individual cases like this,” said Samuel Bagenstos, a former senior civil rights prosecutor during the Obama administration.
The day before closing the investigation into Mr. Sterling’s death, the department won a guilty plea from Michael Slager, a former police officer in North Charleston, S.C., who shot Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, in the back as he fled after a traffic stop. “Such failures of duty not only harm the individual victims of these crimes,” Mr. Sessions said, “they harm our country by eroding trust in law enforcement.”
The same group of career investigators that led Mr. Slager’s case oversaw the inquiry into Mr. Sterling’s death and recommended closing it without charges.
“The Obama administration would have handled these cases the same way,” Mr. Butler said.
Ms. Ifill said the Slager case showed how hard it was to prosecute an officer. Mr. Slager initially told investigators that he feared for his life because Mr. Scott had taken his stun gun. Had a bystander not videotaped the shooting, Ms. Ifill said, investigators would have accepted Mr. Slager’s account.
Other high-profile police cases loom for Mr. Sessions. The Justice Department is investigating the shooting death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland, and the death of Freddie Gray, who was injured in a police van in Baltimore. Both cases represent steep challenges. Tamir was holding a toy gun when an officer opened fire. Local prosecutors have dropped charges against all officers involved in Mr. Gray’s death. The civil rights investigation is separate from the Justice Department’s inquiry into the entire Baltimore Police Department, completed under Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, which found a pattern of officers’ stopping black residents with little reason.
Mr. Sessions must also decide how to conclude the Justice Department investigation into the death of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold. Last year, Ms. Lynch authorized prosecutors to seek charges against the officer. They are building their case before a grand jury.
Advocates are also watching how Mr. Sessions handles last week’s fatal shooting of a black teenager by a police officer near Dallas, in which the police characterization of events changed. The officer was fired this week. The Justice Department has not said whether it will investigate.
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