Research Suggests Why Grand Juries Fail to Indict

Man holding sign with Tamir Rice picture

(image source)

Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park, was shot and killed by police called to the scene by a neighbor. On Monday, a grand jury failed to indict the cops who killed Rice. The failure to indict anyone in the murder of a child is sickening, but not in any way surprising. The non-indictment of these Cleveland cops responsible for Rice’s murder stands in a long and depressing list of recent failures to indict: in the death of Eric Garner, in the death of Sandra Bland, in the death of Michael Brown.

Someone unfamiliar with the U.S. judicial system might glance at this string of failed indictments and imagine that it’s fairly common for grand juries to not bring indictments. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Grand juries almost always indict every case brought before them by a prosecutor. So why this succession of failed indictments?

There is a ton of research that suggests some explanations.

  • Police & Prosecutorial Dominance. “The house always wins,” and in police-involved shootings, the “house” is the police. Even in the rare cases when officers are indicted for shootings, such as in the killing of Amadou Diallo, the indicted officers are likely to be acquitted, restored to their jobs, and later promoted. This police and prosecutorial dominance is not merely a case of closing ranks behind a blue wall of silence, but part of the larger fabric of the systemic racism known as the New Jim Crow. The dominance of police and prosecutors is now, over the last 30 years, become part of the legislative and judicial system, as Michelle Alexander has detailed in her work.

michelle alexander - new jim crow book cover

(Michelle Alexander, author of New Jim Crow)

  • White Dominance of Police Departments. Throughout the U.S., police departments tend to be whiter than the general population. For example, Maple Heights, the neighborhood in Cleveland where Tamir Rice lived, went from being mostly white to nearly two-thirds black in the last few decades. But the police force there remains predominantly white, despite a 1977 affirmative action deal in which the city agreed to hire more people of color. Overall, in the U.S. the percentage of whites on a police force is more than 30 percentage points higher than in the communities they serve, according to an analysis by the NYTimes drawn from a government survey of police departments.


  • Whites’ Anti-Black Views Shape Policing. The perspectives of whites, as policy makers, police and as plain citizens who call 911 on a neighborhood boy playing in a nearby park as a cause for concern, shape the way policing is done in the U.S. Nearly half of whites believe “many” or “almost all” black men are violent. Whites overestimate the amount of crime, in particular violent crime, involving blacks.

graph - whites overestimate black part in crime

(image source)


When describing the events surrounding the killing of Tamir Rice, the prosecutor described a “perfect storm of human error.” It seems that the right to be a human being, is not one that Tamir Rice, or Sandra Bland, or Eric Garner, or Amadou Diallo will get.