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Originally published February 16, 2011 at 8:22 PM | Page modified February 17, 2011 at 11:23 AM

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Civil-rights cases against cops are rare

The decision not to prosecute former Seattle police Officer Ian Birk on murder or manslaughter charges does not end his potential legal fallout for the shooting. The Department of Justice could file criminal civil-rights charges against Birk, although such prosecutions are rare and often fail, according to former federal prosecutors and researchers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The decision not to prosecute former Seattle police Officer Ian Birk on murder or manslaughter charges does not end his potential legal fallout for the shooting.

Birk's shooting of John T. Williams is almost certainly among the incidents being reviewed by U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors, who arrived in Seattle earlier this week to begin a preliminary review of the Police Department.

The shooting and other incidents involving police use of force against minorities prompted the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and 34 community groups to call on the Justice Department to investigate the department's practices.

The Department of Justice could file criminal civil-rights charges against Birk, although such prosecutions are rare and often fail, according to former federal prosecutors and researchers.

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on the matter Wednesday.

Retired Saint Louis University professor Steven Puro, who has conducted research on the role of federal civil-rights prosecutions in local police accountability, said those cases have proved hard to bring and even harder to win.

The government would have to prove that Birk, acting "under color of law" — the authority granted him as a police officer — deprived Williams of a protected civil right, and that he did so willfully and intentionally.

"It's not enough to prove that he shot him," or even that the shooting was outside department policy, Puro said.

"You have to show he did all those things, and that he did them knowing that he was violating this person's civil rights."

That can be particularly hard in shooting cases, which often happen quickly.

"If you have a case where an officer is using excessive force — say, beating someone — it takes time and the officer has time to reflect on his actions," said one U.S. Department of Justice source with extensive background in civil-rights cases.

The source spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to talk publicly about the Birk case.

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"In a shooting, it's often just seconds. It's hard to prove what they were thinking," the source said.

In the history of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle, prosecutors have brought only a single criminal civil-rights case against a law-enforcement officer.

That case, tried in 2008, resulted in an acquittal of ex-King County sheriff's Deputy Brian Bonnar, who was accused of violating the civil rights of a woman he helped arrest in October 2005.

"Our research showed that in many of these cases, juries were reluctant to second-guess police officers," Puro said.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

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