Cases show progress on issue of police accountability in shootings
By Roger Chesley
© August 20, 2015
RARELY ARE police officers charged with a crime when they shoot and kill someone. The Washington Post reported this year that since 2005, only 54 officers nationwide were charged in such killings. That's a tiny fraction of the thousands of people shot fatally by police over that period.
So it's noteworthy that two officers were indicted recently in fatal shootings in Virginia, in confrontations in Norfolk and Fairfax County.
In Norfolk, a grand jury indicted Officer Michael Carlton Edington Jr. in June with voluntary manslaughter in the death of David Latham, a mentally ill man, at his home in June 2014. Latham had a knife. Edington faces a motions hearing Sept. 1, said a spokeswoman with the Norfolk Commonwealth's Attorney's Office.
In Northern Virginia, Adam D. Torres, now fired from the Fairfax County Police Department, was charged this week with second-degree murder in an August 2013 slaying. Torres shot a man who had a holstered gun at his feet.
Experts who study police use of force, especially involving African American and Latino victims, told me it's too early to know whether such charges represent a trend. Investigators and prosecutors have tended to give police the benefit of the doubt - no matter the circumstances.
At least one academic said, however, that scrutiny of police will remain high following cases in Ferguson, Mo.; New York City; Baltimore; North Charleston, S.C.; and elsewhere. The "Black Lives Matter" movement is playing a role, too, in keeping up pressure.
Ronnie Dunn is a professor at Cleveland State University and researches policing, crime and diversity. He cited the prevalence of video footage and cellphone cameras in contributing to indictments.
"Video verifies what blacks have been saying," Dunn said, about officers using excessive force - sometimes in minor crimes.
Whites are also victims of police excesses. Such are the accusations in Fairfax County, where 46-year-old John Geer died in the 2013 standoff following a domestic disturbance call. Witnesses, including other police officers, said Geer had his hands up and wasn't armed when he was shot. The case sparked protests.
News outlets reported that Torres, the former officer charged in the case, collapsed in court Wednesday after being denied bail.
Philip M. Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, is a former officer and assisted The Washington Post with a lengthy article published in April. "The dirty little secret that police officers sometimes lie on their reports" is taken more seriously now, Stinson told me.
If these developments change things for the better - good. Citizens shouldn't fear their police departments. Nor should officers automatically get off scot-free.
I'll say it again: The men and women in blue have tough jobs, make life-and-death decisions, and often deal with dangerous criminals. Most officers remain professional in thankless, stressful situations.
Some, however, abuse their authority. They let power go to their heads. They cross the line when motorists and other suspects don't show deference or subservience.
That must change.
Police departments have begun looking inward, examining shortcomings and modifying procedures. Since the police-shooting deaths in Norfolk last year of two people with mental illness, including Latham, the Police Department has trained more than 200 officers in a 40-hour crisis intervention course.
I want law enforcers to have the training and skills to do their job.
But they must face the consequences if they kill without justification.
Roger Chesley, 757-446-2329, email@example.com, pilotonline.com/chesley, facebook.com/RogerChesley, @ChesleyRoger on Twitter