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Cops and General Deterrence

There’s a reason why police officers continue to kill mostly black people around the country. It’s because they know that even in the rare cases where they are charged, they probably won’t be convicted. And even if they walk into the wrong home and gun down a guy who was just enjoying some ice cream, the judge will probably hug them after they get a sentence that accounts for a fraction of the time a normal person would serve.

General deterrence is important. Every time I’m in federal court, I’m lectured by judges about it: that one of the purposes of the criminal law is to create respect for the law, and ensure that people in general know that, if they commit crimes and get caught, they will eventually serve a sentence of sometime.

This concept of general deterrence is somewhat overstated: most people are aware they might be caught and that they might be punished, but they often don’t value the the risk adequately. So I’m not here to say that general deterrence works as a general principle, and certainly when it comes to the death penalty, general deterrence doesn’t really work at all.

But general deterrence would work very well in the sort of context where it matters most. If police officers knew that, were they to shoot and kill someone, they would be subject to a thorough and impartial investigation, and would be charged with the highest possible crime, police officers would stop killing citizens.

But that doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen because District Attorneys – the elected officials who prosecute crimes on the state level – often depend on cops for votes come election time, and depend on cops to do their job prosecuting other citizens.

Can you imagine what a signal it would’ve sent to cops around the country if Eric Garner’s killers had been sent to prison for 30 years? Can you imagine what a signal it would’ve sent to cops around the country if Philandro Castille’s killer had been convicted over first degree murder? Or if Derek Chauvin had been prosecuted the first time he killed a citizen?

George Floyd would probably still be alive.

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