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Most Police Officers Can Draw From Law Enforcement Legal Defense Funds For Court Fees

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The trial of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis for the death of George Floyd is expected to go on for weeks. And that means a lot of money going to lawyers. Chauvin's defense attorney is being paid in full by a legal defense fund specifically for law enforcement officers being prosecuted in Minnesota. Most police officers around the country can freely draw from these types of funds to push through long legal battles. Samantha Michaels reported on this for Mother Jones, and she joins us now.

Welcome.

SAMANTHA MICHAELS: Hi, Ari. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: So you report that the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association has hundreds of thousands of dollars set aside for these kinds of cases. And there are many other similar funds all over the country, some with millions of dollars. How do they work?

MICHAELS: So these associations have legal defense funds, which are basically big pots of money that will pay for an officer's legal fees in a criminal trial. And officers help build up these legal funds through their police unions. So they'll pay either monthly or annual fees that build up the funds. And then if they beat somebody or kill somebody or are accused of another crime, they can call up the association and get connected with an attorney who will work with them throughout the duration of the legal proceedings.

SHAPIRO: These funds are, broadly speaking, for police officers and law enforcement. But can you tell us more about specifically which officers tend to draw on these resources?

MICHAELS: These funds are used mostly by officers who are accused of crimes. So that often happens after an officer uses excessive force against somebody on patrol. Often these funds are used after on-duty shootings.

SHAPIRO: So what are the biggest arguments against this kind of a system?

MICHAELS: So one of the biggest concerns is that this creates an unfair advantage for police officers. Most other people who are not police officers don't get access to this kind of funding through their unions if they are accused of crimes. And so some activists are concerned that if police officers have unlimited funding for their trials, that it creates an uneven playing field, and it makes it harder to convict them. And so it's just another factor that kind of adds to the perception that police are almost legally untouchable after they beat or kill somebody. There's also another potential problem, which is that some of these police associations that are paying money for defense attorneys for police officers are also pouring a lot of money into district attorney elections, so supporting prosecutors who are going to have to decide whether or not to file charges against police officers. And so there's a concern that this creates a conflict of interest.

SHAPIRO: Chauvin's lawyers are arguing that he was properly doing the job of a police officer when he kneeled on George Floyd's neck and Floyd died. If that is the case, then why wouldn't it be appropriate for the police department to handle his defense?

MICHAELS: In speaking with people who work for cities attorneys' offices, I learned that most cities, most municipalities, don't pay for the criminal legal fees for officers. It's more common that cities will pay for the civil litigation, like, if an officer gets sued.

SHAPIRO: You know, big picture, police officers are rarely convicted for on-duty killings. How big a role do you think these kinds of funds play in that outcome?

MICHAELS: I think these funds are one factor in that outcome. It ensures that they have enough money to sustain potentially very long criminal trials. But there are also other factors at play that make it hard to convict police officers. One of those is just how our use of force laws are set up. They're pretty lenient. And a lot of them say that if a police officer reasonably feared for their life or for their safety, then it's OK for them to use force. And so that makes it really hard for prosecutors to file charges, and it makes it even harder for courts to convict.

SHAPIRO: Samantha Michaels is a reporter for Mother Jones magazine.

Thank you very much.

MICHAELS: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.