ATLANTA (AP) — National outrage over the death of a black man while in police custody and the speed with which a prosecutor decided to charge the officers who arrested him could have a chilling effect on law enforcement — at least in the short term while passions are running so high.
Former law enforcement officials, prosecutors and defense attorneys say the intense scrutiny being cast on the behavior of police departments nationwide — especially regarding their treatment of minorities — could lead to a temptation to stop pursuing certain crimes and suspects rather than risk accusations of misconduct.
"If it's a not-serious street crime, they are probably going to turn and go the other way," said Frank Rotondo, a former policeman in New York state who now lobbies for police chiefs in Georgia. "They don't want to be accused."
Rotondo said such a temptation might be strongest for white police officers who must decide whether to intervene in cases involving minority suspects.
"It would allow that white police officer to think twice," Rotondo said. "It really would, because even if his actions are correct he might be second-guessed."
Rotondo isn't the only one who thinks that some officers might balk from getting into a fight or using force, even when it's justified.
"The biggest danger is that the police officer will not properly perform his duties," said Robert Leight, a former detective in Pennsylvania who has worked for the FBI and as a federal prosecutor and defense attorney. "It puts him at risk, it puts the other officers around him at risk, and it puts the public at risk. ... A police officer must react instinctively as he has been trained. If a police officer first thinks about what liabilities he will be facing, it's too late."
Leight represented three white police officers who were sued by a black student who claimed the officers beat him. The officers were on a special detail in the high-crime neighborhood. They said they spotted the student prowling near a home with a bulge in his pocket they thought was a gun.
A federal court jury last year awarded the student $119,000 in damages — including $6,000 against each officer in punitive damages for acting "maliciously and wantonly" — for a false arrest claim. The jury deadlocked on an excessive force claim.
At least one former law enforcement officer said the increased scrutiny on law enforcement might prompt changes for the better in police departments, such as teaching officers better communications skills. Former Providence, Rhode Island, Police Lt. Kenneth Cohen also predicted that more police officers would be required to wear body cameras, making it easier to prosecute police misconduct when there are no third-party witnesses.
Asked whether the charges against the officers in the Baltimore case would have a chilling effect on law enforcement, Cohen said he thought there might be some but that it would be short-lived.
"As it becomes a memory, you go back to doing the job that you do," he said.
Associated Press Writer Joe Mandak in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.