Police officers convicted for fatal shootings are the exception, not the rule

Since 2005, research shows that only 35 officers have been convicted of a crime related to an on-duty fatal shooting.

Chicago police work the scene of a stabbing on Oct. 21, 2017, on the city's Southwest side.Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images file

In Florida, a grieving family and activists interested in greater police accountability called an all-white jury’s decision to convict a former police officer in the shooting death of a black motorist a victory for justice.

The officer’s conviction can also be described as something else: extremely rare.

Each year in the United States, somewhere between 900 and 1,000 people are shot and killed by police, said Philip Stinson, an associate professor at Bowling Green State University’s criminal justice program. Stinson leads the university’s Police Integrity Research Group in gathering data and looking for patterns in police shootings, police arrests and how juries, prosecutors and judges respond.

“None of these cases, cases involving police shootings, is ever easy or exactly the same,” Stinson told NBC BLK. “But today, an officer gets on the stand and says 'I feared for my life,' and that’s usually all she wrote. No conviction, more often than that, no charges at all.”

Stinson is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on police conduct and accountability, creating one of the first datasets tracking police arrests, convictions and shootings. His work with The Washington Post helped to generate a database of every police shooting in the United States during specific years, leading to stories that won the paper a Pulitzer Prize.

“You can not improve policing or public safety if you do not understand what policing looks like, how it works in every community, and the public is not well informed,” Stinson said. “I think the best thing that may have come out of the data we’ve been gathering is that people used to think of these shootings as one-offs. If this is not happening to you, to your family, it’s only in the aggregate that you really see the problem. And there is a problem.”

Demonstrators march to protest the police shooting of Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, California on March 23, 2018.Bob Strong / Reuters file

In the Florida case, former officer Nouman Raja had claimed he identified himself to motorist Corey Jones and that Jones then threatened him with a gun. According to prosecutors, Raja, who was not in uniform and drove an unmarked vehicle the night of the shooting, failed to identify himself as a police officer before he fired six shots into Jones, killing him.

Since 2005, 98 nonfederal law enforcement officers have been arrested in connection with fatal, on-duty shootings, according to the Police Integrity Research Group’s data. To date, only 35 of these officers have been convicted of a crime, often a lesser offense such as manslaughter or negligent homicide, rather than murder.

Only three officers have been convicted of murder during this period and seen their convictions stand. Another 22 officers were acquitted in a jury trial and nine were acquitted during a bench trial decided by a judge. Ten other cases were dismissed by a judge or a prosecutor, and in one instance no true bill was returned from a grand jury.

Criminal cases are pending against 21 officers involved in fatal shootings.

“Yes, you want accountability,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a civil rights organization. “And, yes, you want to make sure it does not continue to happen again and again, but how strongly and surely should you turn to a system that has not delivered justice to your people?”

Nearly five years after Michael Brown’s death and mass protests in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a national conversation about policing, a set of patterns have emerged. Those killed are disproportionately black and more often than not blamed for their own deaths or demonized in the process. Police officers facing questions about the use of force do not always tell the truth or face penalties when they lie. Prosecutors who must face voters at election time and work with police officers each day are often loathe to bring charges. When they do, juries and judges are reticent to convict.

“We are in this place where I think the country knows there is a problem, or most of the country knows,” Robinson said. “There is an understanding broadly now, of what black people in this country have always known. But, we are expecting the system that puts black people in harm's way to then turn around and be an effective vehicle for justice when black people are harmed.”

One of the challenges facing families and prosecutors inclined to consider charges against a police officer is that the legal standard for a justified shooting is well understood, even taught in police academies, said Steven L. Winter, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. Winter once worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he argued one of the cases before the U.S Supreme Court that helped to establish the standard.

That case, Tennessee v. Garner, undoubtedly saved some lives, Winter said. It made some officers think a little longer before firing. It eliminated the idea that just about any police shooting involving a fleeing suspect will be justified. Instead, officers could only use deadly force when they were in fear for their life or that of others.

That case began with the grief of yet another black family. In 1974, a 15-year-old black boy was shot and killed by a Memphis police officer while fleeing a home where the teen had allegedly broken a window and made off with a purse containing $10. It was a crime punishable by time in juvenile detention. But the officer, who was also black, admitted that due to a flashlight, he could see that the teen did not have a weapon in his hands. The boy’s father filed suit and pursued the matter all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1985. The New York Times headline read "High Court Limits Rights of Police to Shoot to Kill.”

In 1989, the Supreme Court took up another case, Graham v. Connor, which clarified the standard for a justifiable shooting.

The court ruled officers could use deadly force when an objectively reasonable officer would perceive a deadly risk, not simply when they felt afraid.

“I didn’t have a lot of contact with the family, directly, but it was my understanding that that brought some measure of comfort,” Winter said. “There’s no question it saved some lives and created a path, some very specific phrasing that officers today aren’t afraid to deploy when it’s time to explain what happened."

By 2014, social justice activists had recognized the critical role of prosecutors in assuring police accountability and began to organize, Robinson said. In 2016, Republicans swept many federal, state and even local offices, but a number of city and county prosecutors who had been unwilling to examine police activities, including some Republicans, were voted out of office.

People in favor of police accountability rallied, pressing candidates for their positions on plea agreements, mass incarceration, prosecuting low level crimes, holding the poor in jail who are unable to pay bail for minor crimes and prosecuting juveniles as adults, Robinson said. They also pressed for information on how candidates would approach cases involving possible police misconduct.

Early in 2016 that organizing led to Anita Alvarez, the state’s attorney in Chicago, being voted out of office, losing to a reformist candidate. Alvarez had helped to withhold from the public a tape of a Chicago police officer shooting and killing Laquan McDonald. In 2018, the same voter sentiments pushed a longtime prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, out of the prosecuting attorney’s office in St. Louis County (which includes Ferguson), also to a reformist candidate, Wesley Bell.

But resistance Bell has not been tepid, said Robinson.

In December, the prosecutors who now answer to Bell voted to to join a local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, a union of police officers.

In reality, prosecutors are refusing to take cases involving police officers to court. The fear they will be unable to push jurors past that reticence to question police action and win, Stinson said.

“If anything has changed since Mike Brown’s death in 2014, it’s that more and more of these incidents are caught on tape, there’s some kind of video,” Stinson said. “But when it comes to prosecutors, judges and juries, I’m still not sure that’s made a damn bit of difference.”