Analysis: Wave of Police Officers Charged in Killing – Blip or New Trend?
Posted by David Greenwald
The willingness for prosecutors to charge and prosecute police officers for on-duty murder is one of the biggest changes that has happened in the last year since the fallout from Ferguson and Staten Island. When a Grand Jury refused to indict officers involved in the killings of Michael Brown of Ferguson and Eric Garner of Staten Island, it was largely business as usual for prosecutors reluctant to charge police officers for crimes committed while on duty.
We saw this in Yolo County. In 2009, sheriff’s deputies shot and killed Luis Gutierrez, who they said fled from them on Gum Avenue in Woodland and then pulled a knife.
Six months after the shooting, the DA’s office concluded their investigation and found, “When considering all of the facts and circumstances known to them at the time, the use of deadly force by the deputies was objectively reasonable and justified and therefore does not warrant the filing of criminal charges against Sgt. Johnson, Deputy Oviedo or Deputy Bautista.”
Said Assistant Chief Deputy Jonathan Raven at the time, “The district attorney’s report was based on a lengthy (Woodland) Police Department investigation and we were thorough and deliberate. We came to a decision and even asked the attorney general to review it, and we also asked the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI to conduct their own investigation, and certainly we hope the community is comfortable with the decision, because that’s important to us.”
A jury in a federal civil rights case in the fall of 2012 found for the officers in that case – the shooting was not captured on video.
In 2012, ten months after the November 18, 2011, pepper-spraying incident at UCD, the DA’s office concluded “that the use of force in this case was not unlawful.”
In their conclusion, the DA wrote, “Lieutenant Pike’s pepper spraying of the seated protesters has been seen by and has outraged millions of viewers throughout the world. Based on the thirty seconds of video that most people have seen the pepper spraying may look like unreasonable force.”
“In evaluating the totality of the circumstances under a reasonable doubt standard, we have considered and given substantial weight to the opinions and conclusions set forth in the Kroll Report,” the DA writes. “In light of this additional evidence, and viewing the incident through the totality of the circumstances, there is insufficient evidence to establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the use of force involved in the November 18, 2011, pepper spraying was unlawful and therefore warrants the filing of criminal charges.”
Even on the few cases when prosecutors were willing to seek indictment or otherwise charge police officers for fatal shootings, getting convictions was difficult.
Oscar Grant was shot by BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year’s Day 2009. Officers detained Mr. Grant and others on the platform of the BART station. Officer Mehserle stood and said, “Get back, I’m gonna Tase him.” Then, the officer drew his pistol and shot Mr. Grant in the back. Mr. Grant, unarmed, was pronounced dead the next day. This event was captured on video and widely disseminated.
In 2010, Mr. Mehserle was charged with murder, and he resigned his position. In July, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. He would be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to two years and released in June of 2011, having served 11 months.
These types of decisions represented conventional wisdom at the time. Even when prosecutors were inclined to charge police officers with crimes, they feared juries would side with the police.
However, an Atlantic article this week finds that, over the past five months, 14 police officers have been charged in on-duty killings – a rate that represents five times the previous rate for charging.
This week, a judge ordered Albuquerque officers to stand trial for killing a homeless man as he appeared to surrender. The same day, “two former East Point police officers were indicted on charges that they murdered a 24-year-old father by repeatedly using their Tasers on him while he was handcuffed and sitting in a creek,” the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported.
On Monday, the Washington Post reported that a “former Fairfax County police officer was charged with second-degree murder, nearly two years after he shot an unarmed Springfield man who stood with his hands raised in the doorway of his home.”
In July we had the prosecution of Ray Tensing for the killing of Samuel DuBose, in June Michael Slager was charged with the killing of Walter Scott, and in May six officers were indicted on homicide charges connected to the death of Freddie Gray.
The Washington Post cataloguing of police murders found that “American police officers kill orders of magnitude more people than their counterparts in other western democracies.” The Atlantic reports that “the number of U.S. cops arrested for killingsin the last five months exceeds the total number of people shot and killed by cops in England going back five years. This is particularly extraordinary, given how reluctant many U.S. prosecutors are to file charges against police, and how much deference police reports are given in the absence of video or forensic evidence, like a bullet in the back, that blatantly contradicts their story.”
In a seven-year period ending in 2011, just 41 officers were charged in connection with on-duty shootings, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2014, citing research by Philip Stinson, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University. “That figure works out to an average of 5.8 officers charged per year, but excludes officers charged in non-shooting deaths.”
The Atlantic notes, “And while it may be that the five-month period we’re in now will look like just an unusual cluster, if the rate at which cops are indicted for killings continues at this pace, then we’re witnessing a sharp disjuncture with the recent past.”
If this trend continues, then it would appear that the protests and awareness brought by the #Blacklivesmatter movement will have led to policy change. If it reverts, then it will just have been a momentary blip, soon forgotten.
—David M. Greenwald reporting