U.S. attorneys across the country charge law enforcement officers in civil rights cases about 42 times a year, declining to prosecute more than nine in every 10 cases referred to prosecutors by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The percentage of civil rights cases that end without federal prosecution is in contrast to charges brought in immigration cases or white collar crime cases, according to data collected by the Transactional Records Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
In the past five years, federal prosecutors brought charges in less than seven percent of the FBI referrals involving civil rights violations under color of law. By contrast, federal prosecutors brought charges in about 44 percent of wire, radio and television fraud cases referred to them, the TRAC data show. Prosecutors brought charges in more than 98 percent of the FBI referrals on cases of illegal reentry of non-citizens into the U.S.
Those cases, former federal prosecutors say, often are easier to win.
In addition, interviews and a review of federal cases reveal, U.S. attorneys consider bringing civil rights charges after local prosecutors either elect not to prosecute, or unsuccessfully prosecute law enforcement officers for abuse.
“Usually what happens is the local district attorney will investigate, and if the local [prosecutor] brings charges then the U.S. attorney won’t get involved,” said attorney L. George Parry, who had experience prosecuting police abuse both as a federal and state prosecutor in Pennsylvania.
Civil rights lawyers say that federal prosecutions against officers for abuse are rare.
“It doesn’t happen,” said Jon Loevy, a Chicago-based lawyer who has won several large verdicts for clients in abuse cases.
The data show that the FBI refers far fewer investigations of potential civil rights violations by law enforcement to prosecutors than in the early years of the TRAC data, which goes back 30 years. Between 2010 and 2014, prosecutors considered 3,139 civil rights cases referred by the FBI. In the first five years, prosecutors considered 14,755 cases referred by the FBI.