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The trouble with prosecuting officer-involved shootings

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – As many questions surround the decision by a special prosecutor not to charge the officers involved in the shooting death of Aaron Bailey, experts are drawing attention to the difficulty of prosecuting such cases.

A recent study  out of Bowling Green State University shows that despite there being about 1,000 police shootings  each year, only 80 officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter from the years 2005 to April of this year.

Jack Crawford, a former prosecutor in Lake County, says some of those numbers can be attributed to the “delicate balance” when addressing officer-involved shootings.

“In a police-action shooting, there’s a delicate balance, between the interests the public has in the police protecting them, acting if necessary with deadly force; and the interest of citizens in not being killed unjustifiably,” he said.

Crawford says one factor that makes many cases difficult is the duty of the prosecutor to determine whether or not an officer had a reasonable belief their life was in danger at the time of the shooting.

“It's easy post incident to decide what is reasonable or what is the right or wrong thing to do. But in the instant, in the moment that the officers faced that situation, that’s what jurors, or judges, or special prosecutors have to do is decide at that instant, did they act reasonably,”  he said.

Crawford says cases where there’s little to no video and fewer witnesses can also compound the problem. He also points to self-defense laws as playing an important factor.  In Indiana, he says self-defense laws are broad and pretty subjective.

However Crawford does admit that there is a difference between the threshold to charge, and the threshold to convict. And he says that sometimes prosecutors won't charge a case if they feel a conviction is not possible

“It can be a hard case to convict but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a hard case to charge,” he said.

In the end, he says the decision to prosecute is a tough one to arrive at.

“You do have many fine lines here to decide, between what is right and what is wrong and what is legal and what may be illegal. And those two things can be different,” he said.