Analysis: Wave of Police Officers Charged in Killing – Blip or New Trend?

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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 killings in 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

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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6 thoughts on “Analysis: Wave of Police Officers Charged in Killing – Blip or New Trend?”

  1. zaqzaq

    Half of the 14 are a result of Mosby’s decisions in Baltimore.  The only case that looks like a clear guilty of murder result that I am tracking here is the S. Carolina incident where the individual is shot in the back while fleeing from the officer.  Charinging an officer is one thing but getting a guilty verdict is another.  The Baltimore case is clearly a reach and could easily result in six not guilty verdicts.  So could many of the other cases.  Last week a jury in the Kerrick case came back 8 for aquital and 4 for guilt.  What is interesting in the Kerrick case was the fact that one officer drew his taser and missed before Kerrick used his firearm and shot the suspect.  The press made a big deal about this fact, accusing Officer Kerrick of overreacting.  It is my understanding that when officers are in tandem or more that when one or more uses the taser (nonlethal) at least one officer has their firearm out for officer safety.  In the Kerrick case one officer used the taser and missed prior to the use of lethal force by Kerrick.  We saw this technique used in Woodland when the mentally ill individual with the knife was shot and killed.  I believe this technique is used due to the time it takes to holster the taser and pull out the firearm.  In the Kerrick case the suspect crashed his car after drinking and smoking marijuana.  We again heard the poor unarmed black male who was simply looking for help after crashing his car.  The officers were responding to an attempted residential burglary after the suspect was banging on a door so forcefully that the occupant thought he was trying to break into their home.  The suspect fit the description and failed to follow the offiders directions and charged Kerrick with both of them ending up on the ground in a ditch.  Now he is dead.

    The real trend is the number if suspects that get killed when they do not follow the officers instructions.  How many of them are creating the situation where the officer is put in the position of having to make a decision?  In Yolo county CHP Officer Andy Stevens was shot in the head without warning and killed as he approached the driver’s window during a routine traffic stop.  This is a reality that every officer deals with on every contact with a citizen.  They do not know whether or not a person is armed until they search them.  Until that occurs every suspect could be armed with a deadly weapon and they have to treat them that way.  This danger escalates every time a suspect does not follow the officers instructions.  Failure to comply with the officer increases the danger for both the suspect and the officer by placing the officer in a situation where they have to make a split second decision.  This is the more disturbing trend

    1. Davis Progressive

      you make some interesting points.  the data may well be driven by the fact that six of the 14 were based on one case.  however, anecdotally it seems like more of these cases are getting charged than before.

      i have a lot of problems with your analysis of the kerrick case.  mistaken identification is part of the problem here.  the suspect is clearly not reacting properly based on his intoxication level (which is of course a crime).  but again, the officers reaction probably puts it into a gray area on criminality, which is essentially what the jury found in their 8-4 split.

      “The real trend is the number if suspects that get killed when they do not follow the officers instructions.”

      and that is the biggest problem that police face.  what happens when your subject is not following instruction but isn’t violently resisting.  this wave of attention is really focused on that.  and the answer is that if you fire a weapon or use force, you’ll be caught on tape most likely and it will be scrutinized.  so there’s another solution potentially and that is retraining the officers.

      1. zaqzaq

        DP,

        What’s wrong with my analysis?  How is a .06 BAC a crime?  Often the officers are responding to a call for service which contains often inadequate information.  Cleveland and this case are good examples.  Cleveland the dispatcher leaves out the toy gun reference and this is probably just a drunk student looking for help after an accident and not a burglar.  But the burglary call was what Kerrick was responding to.  What the news reports leave out is the fact that the suspect somehow ends up on top of Kerrick in the ditch.

        Since you are the lawyer do the cities have any liability for failurre to properly train the officers?  Say a cop gets arrested can they sue the city for failure to properly train them by putting them through realistic training where they practice these scenarios?

    2. tribeUSA

      Zaqzaq–nice summary.

      With regard to increased charging rates; blip or trend?: I would say somewhere in the middle; I think the charging rates will fall back a bit (in some of the recent incidents the police have been over-charged, due to political pressure from what I can tell) but remain well above the baseline rate prior to 2014; because more phone videos everywhere will indeed capture some of the clear incidents (rare, but not nonexistent) of excessive use of force. Also, by the way, we will see more video examples that illustrate bad behavior on the part of many suspects. And we can assume the rest of us are perfectly behaved at all times, unless proven guilty by video!

  2. sisterhood

    “This danger escalates every time a suspect does not follow the officers instructions. Failure to comply with the officer increases the danger …”
    Not sure what I’d do if a cop tried to get me out of my car. And I’m a white 59 year old. If I was a black or Latino 25 year old, not sure what I’d do. Here in AZ a very short, skinny college girl was slammed into a metal bench because she did not “obey” a cop, three times her size, quickly enough.  Just not sure what I’d do anymore. I don’t trust the cops to get it right.

    Cops need training for sure. But there seems to be a general attitude (how do you train attitude?) It seems more common today, than in my dad’s day. But maybe I am just too subjective for this discussion. Cops seem to hate it so much if you disrespect them, or don’t “obey” them. This seems new. Perhaps it’s because in my dad’s day, they often road with a partner? Now they’re all alone, have to make decisions in a heartbeat, and have to wait for backup. Maybe they’re scared.

    1. Miwok

      There is a lot of “orders” shouted in somewhat unintelligible yelling and such even during traffic stops, on TV at least. A guy they stopped was asking the cops why he was stopped and they kept yelling at him to get face down in the dirt and cuffing him before they would tell him why he was pulled over (stolen car). He also said he did not want to “get in the dirt” so the cops pull guns and keep threatening.

      Then they subdue by twisting an arm and telling them “don’t resist”? Cause pain then tell them they are “resisting”? Is that the “training” too? More trumped up charges David talks about all the time?

      Is this the “training”? Every stop has to be an armed confrontation? It seems it is for lots of people. But then, I don’t evade or run from them.

      Maybe PhilColeman has a clue? I only know what I see on TV. The Sheriffs and Police I talked to this weekend at the fair were all pleasant and easy to talk to, and I hope had a good time at the Fair.

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