It's been almost a year since a St. Louis County prosecutor cleared Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. We've seen some significant changes since Nov. 24, 2014: Missouri overhauled its corrupt municipal court system, the push for police body cameras kicked into high gear and Black Lives Matter activists have made police reform an issue in the Democratic presidential primary.
And new data released Monday shows that just 10 months into the year 2015, more officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter in fatal shootings than in any full year in the past decade.
Between January and October, prosecutors have announced such charges for 12 officers, according to data compiled by Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminology at Ohio's Bowling Green State University. (Only a few of the actual shootings took place this year, including former North Charleston Officer Michael Slager's shooting of Walter Scott in April, and former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing's shooting of Sam DuBose in July.)
While this number might not seem very high, especially considering the seemingly constant stream of stories about police violence, it's a significant increase. Between 2005 and 2014, Stinson found that an average of five officers each year faced charges of murder or manslaughter after shooting civilians. By contrast, we're on pace to see 14 or 15 such indictments by the end of 2015, nearly three times the annual average over the previous decade. This will be encouraging to police reform advocates who have gotten increasingly vocal about just how frequently law enforcement officers shoot civilians -- and how rarely they are indicted.
But only in the face of an overwhelming resistance to charge police officers could 12 or 15 indictments look like substantial progress. And given that the country has historically failed to hold officers accountable for shootings -- even in the rare instances in which they are charged -- there may be little reason for broader optimism.
In the absence of federally collected data on police killings, both The Washington Post and The Guardian have launched their own tracking projects. The Post reports that 809 people have been fatally shot by police so far this year, while The Guardian says officers have killed 940 people when all causes of death are counted. Of these 940 people, 184 were unarmed and of those, 60 were black.
Stinson, himself a former police officer, believes the increased attention being paid to police brutality may have contributed to the rise in prosecution, though he adds that it's too early to tell whether 2015 is a statistical outlier or an indication of a trend. At any rate, he says a handful of charges isn't likely to eliminate skepticism about the general failure to prosecute police officers.
"About 1,100 people a year get killed by police officers in this country, and I gotta believe that more than five or 12 a year are unjustified," he told The Huffington Post. "But most of those shootings are found to be justified, because there's not video to contradict the officer's written reports and statements, there's not another officer to contradict the officer's statements."
And just because a few more cops are being prosecuted this year doesn't mean they'll actually be convicted. History certainly suggests that the odds will be in the officers' favor.
Since 2005, just 14 officers have been successfully prosecuted on charges related to fatal on-duty shootings, a rate of about one in five, according to data compiled by Stinson and researchers at The Washington Post. Most faced lesser charges of manslaughter, and the average jail sentence was just over three years. In a few cases, officers pleaded down further, earning lower jail sentences and the option to have their records expunged. In the most severely punished case, two Atlanta police officers who killed a 92-year-old woman in a botched drug raid faced sentences of six and 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to felony voluntary manslaughter and a federal civil rights violation.
There has yet to be a police officer successfully convicted in 2015. None of the 12 cases announced this year have concluded yet, and a number of shooting prosecutions that began in previous years are ongoing, meaning it's possible several more officers will be convicted in the near future.
But there's no reason to take that possibility for granted. Investigations into police misconduct often begin as joint operations between the prosecutor's office and police departments. Because the two entities tend to work closely together on a variety of matters, critics charge that these probes can fall victim to a problematic conflict of interest, both before and after charges are announced.
Furthermore, a Supreme Court decision has established that an officer's decision to use lethal force must be based in "objective reasonableness," an abstract standard that gives officers broad leeway to argue that their actions were necessary. This regularly leads judges to exonerate officers charged in connection with fatal shootings.
And even when a case does make it to a jury trial, many reform advocates say that format is even more skewed in favor of the officer, from the selection process all the way to the actual courtroom proceedings. In general, jurors tend to side with officers. They're regularly instructed to look at the situation through the officer’s eyes and often hesitate to second-guess their actions.
"We don't really know what juries do behind closed doors, and when push comes to shove what we've seen so far is that juries are just incredibly reluctant to convict officers for these on-duty cases that involve something that they recognize is related to policing," said Stinson. "Even when you have video footage that would suggest otherwise, they just aren't likely to convict."
The increase in police indictments this year may be a welcome sign, especially if it suggests that some prosecutors are actually starting to take a less forgiving approach to police shootings. But charging more police officers for alleged impropriety in killings is just one small step toward much-needed broader reform.
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