THE BLOG

If George Zimmerman Was a Cop, He Never Would've Been Charged

07/30/2013 10:18 am ET | Updated Sep 29, 2013
  • Eliyahu Federman Civil rights activist and writer; Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer, 1Sale.com

If George Zimmerman was a trained police officer, he mostly likely would have never been charged, tried or even arrested for shooting unarmed Trayvon Martin. Police who shoot and kill rarely face the criminal justice system.

Last year, the Pasadena, Calif., police shot unarmed Kendrec McDade, a 19-year-old college student. Officers responded to a false report that McDade was armed with a gun. He was shot after reaching for a cell phone in his pocket. The criminal justice system never got to decide whether the officers were justified. No charges were pressed. No arrests made.

It is reasonable to give some deference to the police who risk their lives by entering dangerous situations, but unfortunately our system has gone too far.

Out of 426 cases where on-duty police were accused of using excessive force when killing people, only 28 faced charges, according to a study by the National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project (NPMSRP). That is a mere 6.5 percent.

Contrast that with a 71 percent prosecution rate when off-duty police were accused of wrongfully killing someone. On-duty violence is more tolerated than off-duty violence.

Imagine if Zimmerman were a cop. Shooting Martin in the heat of a violent brawl would have most likely resulted in no criminal charge -- not even manslaughter. He may have never needed a fight to break out for him to lawfully use lethal force. Martin reaching for his bag of Skittles, or cell phone (as McDade did), may have sufficed as a perceived threat justifying lethal force.

A trained police officer should be required to act with at least as high a standard of care as would an unappointed community watchman.

When it comes to civil lawsuits under Title 42 of the civil rights act of 1982, the police have broad immunity from "harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably." This immunity can only be overcome if the plaintiff shows that the police acted willfully and unreasonably.

But when it comes to criminal charges, no such blanket immunity exists. Yet the police are more likely to get away with killing people, and using excessive force, when compared to the general population.

Citizens should be grateful to police for risking their lives in the line of duty, but that risk is part of the job and is no excuse for the systems double standard.

Scholars have argued that the lack of criminal accountability for police misconduct stems from the close working relationship between police and prosecutors. But this double standard fuels distrust and cynicism.

Without second-guessing the jury's verdict, at least Zimmerman had his day in court. At least he was arrested. At least he was charged. At least he had to justify his conduct in criminal court. The police on the other hand, are rarely required to reckon with the criminal justice system.

The system should hold the police to as high a standard as it held George Zimmerman.