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Why juries clear police officers accused of brutality

Why juries clear police officers accused of brutality

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Buffalo Police Officer Joseph Wendel, left, and Detective Raymond Krug, right, speak to reporters after a jury cleared them of excessive force charges in August. (Aaron Besecker/Buffalo News)

When Martin Littlefield is asked about juries and police officers, he points to the police brutality trial he oversaw 17 years ago.

It was shortly after 9/11 and Littlefield, a federal prosecutor in Buffalo, was pursuing a local law enforcement official in a case he described as open and shut.

To his surprise, the jury returned a not guilty verdict.

A few days later, Littlefield said, one of the jurors sent him a note apologizing for the verdict and explaining why they acquitted a cop they knew was guilty.

After 9/11, the note said, "we need to stand by our law enforcement officials."

"People don't want in any way to show disrespect for the police," said Littlefield, now a criminal justice professor at SUNY Buffalo State. "There's a clear sentiment among people that law enforcement is out there to protect us."

Years later, and after two trials acquitting Buffalo police officers of excessive force, some may see Littlefield's story as prophetic.

In August of last year, jurors deciding the fate of two cops returned with a verdict that cleared them of all four charges against them.

Six months later, a jury in a different police brutality case found the Buffalo police officer on trial not guilty on three of four charges and deadlocked on the final one.

Jurors clear Buffalo officer of 3 charges in brutality case, deadlock on 4th

The verdicts, while separate and distinct, are part of a trend here and across the country prompting the question: Why do so many police prosecutions end in acquittals and mistrials?

Experts say it's juries doing their job.

"I don't think they get the benefit of the doubt," Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said of police officers on trial.

Haberfeld doesn't buy the pro-cop bias argument and suggests the recent trend of acquittals and deadlocks in excessive force cases, not just here, but across the nation, is because of responsible juries.

Unlike the public, which may be familiar with the allegations against an officer, or may have seen just a brief video of the incident, the jury hears a more complete story, according to Haberfeld.

"I think it's an eye-opener for jurors," she said. "The public tends to see a fragment, a small piece of what's happening."

Haberfield said most jurors can't help but come away from their trial experience realizing "police work involves force" and that officers are both trained and authorized to use it at times.

Deadlocked jury

For John V. Elmore, a Buffalo lawyer who has both defended and sued cops, the problem with federal court juries is geography, namely the eight counties that supply jurors for trials in Buffalo.

"Many of those counties are rural, many of them are conservative and many of them are not ethnically or racially diverse," Elmore said.

The result is largely white juries.

In the trial of Corey Krug, the veteran officer facing three separate allegations of excessive force, the jury acquitted him in two of the incidents and deadlocked on the last one, a confrontation between Krug and an African-American man on Thanksgiving Day morning more than four years ago.

Caught on video by a WKBW-TV photographer, Krug can be seen using his nightstick to push Devin Ford onto a car and then the ground and then hitting him in the leg. Krug claims Ford tried to grab his nightstick.

The jury in Krug's case deliberated eight days and, in the end, could not agree on whether he violated Ford's civil rights that night. Krug will be retried in June.

Only the jurors know for sure why they deadlocked but the panel's makeup – only one of the jurors was black – prompted speculation among lawyers and court officials familiar with the case. The same jury cleared Krug of two other charges related to African-Americans.

"I'm not suggesting white people can't be fair jurors," Elmore said, "but it's important to have people who are exposed to people of diverse backgrounds."

This trend toward police officer acquittals is not unique to Buffalo.

In 2017, a jury in Milwaukee found a police officer not guilty of reckless homicide in the shooting death of a 23-year old man after a police chase.

That same year, an officer in St. Anthony, Minn., was acquitted of manslaughter charges in the death of a man shot during a traffic stop. Despite the acquittal, the man's family received a $3 million settlement from the city.

Similar cases in Ohio, Oklahoma and Baltimore also ended in acquittals.

Veteran prosecutors say the outcomes are indicative of a pro-police bias among jurors.

"People in this community respect the police," said John E. Rogowski, a Buffalo defense lawyer who handled several police misconduct cases as a federal prosecutor. "It's hard for a jury to hear a convicted felon sit up there on the witness stand and accuse a police officer of using excessive force."

Rogowski, the prosecutor who indicted Krug, thinks juries in Buffalo, where many people have a positive view of law enforcement, treat cops favorably.

He also thinks a juror's inherent respect and trust plays an even bigger role when officers claim their use of force was justified and reasonable, a common defense in civil rights cases.

Beyond the video

Defense lawyers with experience in excessive force cases attribute the recent rash of acquittals to jurors hearing both sides of the story.

"I think it's diligent juries doing their job," said Timothy W. Hoover, a criminal defense lawyer.

Hoover said public opinion about a police officer case may hinge on a well-publicized indictment or a high-profile video, but jurors hear a more complete account of what happened.

In the case of Joseph Hassett, a Buffalo police officer accused of intentionally tripping a handcuffed suspect, prosecutors introduced a video depicting the encounter.

Buffalo police officer found not guilty of assault in tripping incident

"They thought the video was a ticket to conviction," Hoover, who represented Hassett, said of prosecutors.

In the end, Hoover used the same video to show the judge in the case that the suspect's conduct escalated to the point where Hassett was justified in taking him down.

There was no video in the police brutality case that ended last August, but there were revelations about the four teens at the center of the allegations and their involvement in other BB gun shootings that night.

For Rodney O. Personius, a lawyer for one of the officers acquitted in that case, the verdict proved to him the value of impaneling a jury that is free of any bias against cops.

"There's no question there's a segment of the jury pool, just as there's a segment of society, that looks down on police officers," Personsius said last week. "I've come to the conclusion that jury selection is the most important part of the case."

There are a number of Buffalo police officers who might agree.

Buffalo police officers accused of brutality found not guilty

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