But shootings of unarmed black males captured with ubiquitous smartphone or police body cameras have crystallized anger in communities rocked by killings, and several similar incidents have created expectations among some that video and social outrage should be enough to put officers in prison.
Those hopes dim when officers lean on the inherent danger of their work and invoke laws that allow broad authority for violence, leaving calls for justice and video outpaced by a legal system that critics say still favors the police.
Rose, 17, was shot three times after fleeing a car involved in a June shooting in East Pittsburgh. The officer, Michael Rosfeld, was charged with criminal homicide days later after he told conflicting stories about seeing Rose with a weapon, even though Rose was unarmed.
Searing bystander video and public outcry led to charges and the Rose family’s “guarded optimism” that Rosfeld would be convicted.
The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the case, came out forcefully in the days after the killing to suggest the high bar for a murder conviction could be met. “I find that Rosfeld’s actions were intentional,” District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala said in June. “He was not acting to prevent death or serious bodily injury.”
But Rosfeld was acquitted of charges last week, prompting more protests.
“Jurors see with their own eyes a fleeing kid, who is unarmed, and they know it is wrong. But the law is prohibitive. You can only do so much,” S. Lee Merritt, the attorney for Rose’s estate, told The Washington Post.
“State attorneys work with law enforcement and have the unusual task of prosecuting a police officer responsible,” he added. “It becomes a very awkward dance.”
The outcome was nearly symmetrical with that in the cases of Stephon Clark, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others whose killings were captured on video after they were confronted by police while unarmed.
No charges were filed against two officers who killed Clark in March 2018 after mistaking his white iPhone for a gun in a killing that upended Sacramento. An officer shouted “gun!” and, with his partner, fired 20 rounds at Clark in his grandmother’s backyard after they suspected he was breaking into nearby cars.
He was struck eight times, his family’s autopsy concluded.
In Rosfeld’s case, Pennsylvania law allows officers to use force to prevent serious injury to themselves or others, or if they believe it will prevent a suspect’s escape from arrest in the event they are likely to commit violence.
The prosecution’s arguments against Rosfeld rested on his decision to shoot and kill Rose, but prosecutors did not provide an expert witness focused on police use of force for the trial, said Mike Manko, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office.
Prosecutors were otherwise “confident” that video evidence, “common sense” and other facts would overcome Rosfeld’s justification for using force, which can be confusing for a jury to wade through, Manko said.
Merritt, who was not involved in the criminal case, said prosecutors appeared to pull punches. Prosecutors did not fully press Rosfeld on the inconsistencies of his statements to investigators, he said.
Charging documents show Rosfeld told investigators he thought Rose pointed a gun at him but later said he did not see a gun and again altered his statement. Prosecutors pointed out Rosfeld’s inconsistencies during cross examination, Manko said.
In less than four hours, jurors found Rosfeld not guilty of first-degree murder, third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. “The verdict was too fast,” said Carolyn Morrison, Rose’s aunt, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. “It was all too fast."
Rosfeld’s attorney, Patrick Thomassey, defended the verdict. “This was an absolutely justified shooting,” he told The Post.
If Rosfeld didn’t shoot Rose and he went on to commit a crime, Thomassey said, “then people would be clamoring and asking why he didn’t shoot.”
Activists and East Pittsburgh community members were “expecting a rare win,” Merritt said.
Merritt is pursuing a path that other families and attorneys have used after officers did not receive prison time. He filed a federal civil suit against East Pittsburgh and Rosfeld, challenging the constitutionality of the state’s use of force laws, he said.
Videos of police killings have been key to some incidents. They rally communities and pressure law enforcement to release details that line up with the evidence. “If you have video, it does establish a core fact to some degree,” David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, told The Post in 2015.
They have sometimes helped secure convictions against police who killed black males on video.
Former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced to six years in prison in January for the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old suspect with a knife. Michael Slager, a former North Charleston, S.C., officer who killed Walter Scott in 2015, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in a federal case.
And yet, experts have long cautioned that video footage from shootings, while grisly, may not be decisive because it may be incomplete or cannot account for what an officer says they felt in the moment. Police shootings can be deemed legally justified based on whether jurors believe an officer was afraid for their life or the lives of others.
In that sense, video evidence competes with what an officer said they perceived.
For instance, an officer shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop after Castile reached for his ID and told the officer he had a firearm in the car. The 2016 incident in Minnesota was captured in a live Facebook broadcast by Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds.
Jeronimo Yanez, who said he feared for his life, was found not guilty of manslaughter and two counts of endangering Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter. He was dismissed from the police force.
Some point to the limited role video seem to have in securing convictions.
Concern over police killings and calls for change in black communities predate smartphones, but it was easier for others to avoid the issue then, said Phillip Atiba Goff, president of Center for Policing Equity, a nonprofit that promotes police transparency and accountability.
“What cameras did was make the moment inescapable,” Goff said. “People saw the black community. Then we watched them turn away.”
Mark Berman contributed to this report.