In what many observers saw as an open and shut case, two suburban Los Angeles police officers were nonetheless acquitted this month in the 2011 beating death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man.
Criminal prosecutions of officers accused of unlawful violence against civilians are rare. Even more rare are criminal prosecutions of cops which result in any prison time. Invariably these cases include graphic video tape of the violence, but even then, successful prosecutions are rare.
The 1991 Rodney King beating was the first videotaped police beating that went viral on the emerging internet. The nation reacted in horror – and riots – when the officers were acquitted by an all-white suburban jury.
Ironically, the public reactions to the acquittals of King’s attackers helped spur one of the handful of successful criminal prosecutions of officers ever seen in the Chicago area. Within weeks of the riots, the City of Chicago finally washed its hands of the infamous Commander Jon Burge, firing him, and then allowing his successful criminal prosecution on perjury charges.
Prior to that, anti-police misconduct activists could only recall two incidents over the previous two decades when a Chicago police officer had served time for unlawful violence against a civilian not related to them.