The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Police brutality, an investigation — and the officers get off the hook. It just happened again.

A woman places candles last month at the site of Daniel T. Prude's encounter with police officers in Rochester, N.Y. A grand jury voted not to charge officers shown on body-camera video holding Prude down naked and handcuffed on a city street in March 2020. (Adrian Kraus/AP)

AFTER A grand jury dismissed assault charges against two suspended Buffalo officers who shoved an elderly man to the ground during last summer’s protests over police brutality, the prosecutor who brought the charges said he still believed “a crime was committed.” After a grand jury declined to bring charges against any of the Rochester, N.Y., police officers involved in the death of a Black man who had been pinned to the ground with a mesh hood placed over his head, the state’s attorney general bluntly said she was “extremely disappointed” and had wanted a different outcome. Those assessments are likely shared by those who were sickened by the viral videos of a 75-year-old man bleeding as his head hit the pavement and of someone in the throes of a psychotic episode forced to lie naked in ice and snow as officers stood around and laughed.

The cases are the latest examples of police not being called to account for actions that result in unnecessary injury and death. Martin Gugino suffered a brain injury. Daniel T. Prude’s death was ruled a homicide caused in part by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.” Before them, there was Eric Garner, who died after being placed in a prohibited chokehold. Breonna Taylor, shot to death by police who raided the wrong home. Tamir Rice, killed because he was playing with a toy gun. Stephon Clark, fatally shot standing in his grandmother’s backyard holding a cellphone. Elijah McClain, dead after being wrongly stopped by police and injected with a strong sedative. Most of these victims were Black (Mr. Gugino is White), and no one was ever really held responsible.

“The criminal justice system has demonstrated an unwillingness to hold law enforcement officers accountable in the unjustified killing of unarmed African Americans,” New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) said last month after the grand jury refused to bring charges in connection with the deadly encounter of seven officers last March with Prude. She outlined a multifaceted approach to reforming the system and said the cornerstone is changing the law that governs the use of force from one of “subjective simple necessity” to one of “absolute last resort.” Only after every non-lethal option has been exhausted should lethal force be employed. “The system,” she said, “too often allows officers to use deadly force unnecessarily and without consequence.” Ms. James also proposed changes in how police interact with and are trained to deal with emotional distress. She wants the state to follow the lead of New Jersey in mandating a statewide system of certification for police officers.

Ms. James would not comment on what charges she had recommended to the grand jury, citing the secrecy of the proceedings. But she petitioned the court to release minutes related to the grand jury’s investigation. The judge granted the request, but the officers are likely to appeal the ruling. Ms. James is correct that the public has a right to know what was discussed behind closed doors. She is right, too, that this case underscored yet again the need to get serious about reforms in policing.

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Read more:

The Post’s View: The horrifying case of Daniel Prude raises troubling issues about Rochester’s mayor and police force

Zoe Salzman and Billy Joe Mills: Tamir Rice deserves justice. The Biden administration could finally deliver it.

Letters to the Editor: High-crime neighborhoods need police reform, not police defunding

Radley Balko: Trump spurred major shifts in public opinion on race, policing and protests — toward his opponents

Police reform in America

Repeated police misconduct: More than $1.5 billion has been spent to settle claims of police misconduct involving thousands of officers repeatedly accused of wrongdoing. Taxpayers are often in the dark.

Listen: “Broken Doors” is a six-part investigative podcast about how no-knock warrants are deployed in the American justice system — and what happens when accountability is flawed at every level.

Fatal Force: Since 2015, The Washington Post has logged every fatal shooting by an on-duty police officer in the United States. View our police shooting database.

Fired/Rehired: Police departments have had to take back hundreds of officers who were fired for misconduct and then rehired after arbitration.

Read more coverage on policing in America.