The one person mentioned most frequently during the current spate of unrest, protests and riots around the country is still George Floyd. His death while being taken into custody by Minnesota police has led to calls for justice (assuming anyone can agree as to what that means in this case) and the prosecution of the officers involved in the incident. But even with video of the last moments of Floyd’s life having been made publically available, not everyone hoping for a conviction is convinced that it will happen. Over at the Washington Post yesterday, Mark Berman and Kimberly Kindy decided to take a deep dive down the rabbit hole of police shootings and subsequent criminal investigations. The one question that seems to have left them perplexed was why there aren’t more police officers convicted of crimes following lethal use-of-force incidents despite all of the public outrage?
They begin with the story of Ohio prosecutor Joseph Deters, who attempted to prosecute a White police officer who shot and killed a Black suspect during a traffic stop in 2015. Officer Ray Tensing had ended the life of Sam DuBose, resulting in significant public outcry. But after two attempts at taking Tensing to trial ended in hung juries, Deters gave up. This incident is framed in the WaPo article as part of the residue left over after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson the previous year. So why, the authors wonder, is it so tough to send police officers to prison?
A Washington Post analysis of prosecutions that occurred before and after Ferguson found little change in the conviction rate for officers charged in fatal on-duty shootings.
Once these cases moved into courtrooms, prosecutors faced the same hurdles that existed before Ferguson. Officers are afforded wide latitude to use force under the law, vouched for by experts and trusted by juries. They are convicted less than half the time, usually for lesser charges.
What happened in the months and years after Ferguson — the last time the country was gripped by intense, widespread demonstrations prompted by police uses of force — could hold significant lessons as America confronts some of the same issues in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
The authors are wringing their hands over the relatively small number of police officers who wind up being charged after the shooting deaths of suspects and the even more minuscule number that are eventually found guilty of either murder or manslaughter. But they bring in a “hopeful” tone on the topic when they interview a defense attorney and conclude that “some believe the summer’s unrest could transform what happens in the future.”
What they mean by “what happens” is that more cops will be sent to jail. But even if you see that as a desirable outcome, the WaPo’s own research proves that it’s unlikely, and for good reason. The two primary problems with this “analysis” seem to be the assumption that convicting more police officers is a desirable outcome and the use of the Michael Brown shooting as a stepping-off point.
The Washington Post article appears to make the same mistake that many others do when it comes to Ferguson. To this day you can still find people wearing “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” shirts and talking about the “injustice” that took place there. Of course, most of those people likely either don’t know or, more likely, don’t care about the final results of the investigation. When the grand jury investigating the shooting finally concluded its work, it was found that the few supposed witnesses to the incident either weren’t in a position to have seen what happened or they simply lied about what they saw.
The physical evidence from the scene showed that Brown was closing on the police officer when he was shot and that was only after he had reached into the police cruiser in an attempt to attack the cop. The entire story about Brown’s shooting had been concocted from false assumptions and bogus testimony. In March of 2015, even the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, one of the most liberal opinion writers and BLM supporters you are likely to find, wound up writing a column on how “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot was built on a lie.” And yet here we are, more than half of a decade later, with journalists still waving the Michael Brown flag as an example of how not enough police are prosecuted.
Asking why more police officers aren’t sent to jail is the wrong question and it’s one that is only posed by people who think that more cops should be behind bars, evidence to the contrary be damned. The reality is that it’s hard to convict police officers of murder because actual murders committed by police officers are vanishingly rare. The authors of this article again seem to contradict their premise with the paper’s own research which they include as part of the discussion. The WaPo has been carefully tracking incidents of deadly use-of-force encounters ever since Ferguson. They have found that there are an average of roughly 1,000 such fatalities per year. But in the vast majority of cases, the suspects are armed and either attacking or threatening to attack the police.
While it goes unmentioned by the Washington Post, it’s also worth noting that the majority of the suspects who are shot and killed by cops are White. Granted, the number who are minorities are overrepresented based on the percentage of the total population, but a lot of White suspects are getting killed. (When was the last time you saw one of those shootings result in people marching in the streets demanding “justice?” Just saying…)
The lion’s share of police shootings are justifiable and necessary. Others, such as the killing of Tamir Rice in 2014, are the result of a tragic series of errors, still not demonstrating any sort of intentional desire to murder civilians. In the small number of cases where police officers have definitely gone over to the dark side, convictions are not only possible but really do happen. Michael Slager is still doing time for the murder of Walter Scott, though it’s true that his first trial resulted in an 11-1 hung jury but he later took a plea deal on federal charges resulting in a 20-year sentence.
The question here shouldn’t be whether enough police are being charged and convicted. It should be one of whether or not charges are justified to begin with, and making that case requires more than public outrage. If you find arguably guilty cops not being convicted, that’s when we’ll be able to have a civil conversation about this issue.