The Washington Post’s Kimberly Kindy and Kimbriell Kelly recently looked into how hard it is for police officers to be charged after fatally shooting someone while on duty. In most cases in which an officer uses lethal force, a gun is the weapon. The investigation by The Post, which used some arrest data collected by Bowling Green State University researchers, was published the day before Gray was arrested; as of that date, 54 officers in the past decade had been charged for fatally shooting someone while on duty.
In an overwhelming majority of the cases where an officer was charged, the person killed was unarmed. But it usually took more than that.When prosecutors pressed charges, The Post analysis found, there were typically other factors that made the case exceptional, including: a victim shot in the back, a video recording of the incident, incriminating testimony from other officers or allegations of a coverup.Forty-three cases involved at least one of these four factors. Nineteen cases involved at least two.…
“To charge an officer in a fatal shooting, it takes something so egregious, so over the top that it cannot be explained in any rational way,” said Philip M. Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green who studies arrests of police. “It also has to be a case that prosecutors are willing to hang their reputation on.”
In most fatal shootings by police officers, prosecutors don’t press charges. Kindy and Kelly write:
Prosecutors interviewed for this report say it takes compelling proof that at the time of the shooting the victim posed no threat either to the officer or to bystanders.Jay Hodge, a former South Carolina prosecutor, said the question boils down to this: Can the evidence disprove the officer’s story that he was defending himself or protecting the public. Hodge recounted one case he had prosecuted in which a sheriff’s deputy said he had opened fire on an unarmed suspect who grabbed for his gun. The autopsy report, Hodge said, told a different story.“You don’t shoot someone in the back four times and then claim self-defense,” he said. “They can’t be going for a gun if they are running away.”In half the criminal cases identified by The Post and researchers at Bowling Green, prosecutors cited forensics and autopsy reports that showed this very thing: unarmed suspects who had been shot in the back.
In a third of the cases where officers faced charges, prosecutors introduced videos into evidence, saying they showed the slain suspects had posed no threat at the moment they were killed. The videos were often shot from cameras mounted on the dashboards of patrol cars, standard equipment for most police departments.In nearly a quarter of the cases, an officer’s colleagues turned on him, giving statements or testifying that the officer opened fire even though the suspect posed no danger at the time.…And in 10 cases, or about a fifth of the time, prosecutors alleged that officers either planted or destroyed evidence in an attempt to exonerate themselves — a strong indication, prosecutors said, that the officers themselves recognized the shooting was unjustified.