Of the 35 cases that have been resolved, 21 officers were acquitted or saw their cases dropped. So that means of the thousands of killings, just 14 officers received jail time.
The Post analysis, conducted with the assistance of researchers from Bowling Green State University, provides perhaps the most revealing examination to date of how extremely rare it is for prosecutors to bring charges against officers and how difficult it is for those prosecutors to convince juries to find officers guilty of crimes.
In addition, even if they officers are found guilty of wrongdoing, the Post analysis found that they rarely get sentenced to significant time. The average sentence was four years, though sometimes the sentences were as short as a few weeks.
“Jurors are very reluctant to punish police officers, tending to view them as guardians of order, according to prosecutors and defense lawyers,” the Post wrote.
Though various reports have indicated that the number of deaths of civilians at the hands of police have been severely undercounted by authorities because departments aren’t mandated to report incidents, experts believe an average of more than 900 people are killed by law enforcement officers every year.
The Post analysis found that nearly two-thirds of the 49 victims were Black in the cases where officers were charged, while more than three-quarters of the officers charged were white. Nearly all the cases not involving white officers were Black officers who killed Black victims.
While the Post interviewed more than 20 prosecutors across the country who claimed that race was not a factor in their decision-making when they decided to bring charges, not everybody believed them.
The Post quoted a defense lawyer, Doug Friesen, who was skeptical of that claim, saying it was “naive.”
“Anytime you have politicians that have to make charging decisions, realistically that is part of their decision-making process,” said Friesen, who represented a white officer convicted in 2013 for fatally shooting an unarmed Black man. “They are asking themselves, ‘Is there going to be rioting out in the streets?’ ”
The Post delved into the race question, saying it was difficult to assess how much of a role it played in whether cops get charged—but acknowledging that the charges often come amidst angry protests.
Of the cases investigated by the Post, federal prosecutors stepped in to file federal civil rights charges against six officers for killing Black people.
The Post and Bowling Green identified five factors that were usually present in the cases in order for a cop to be charged: the person killed was unarmed; a victim was shot in the back; there was a video recording of the incident; there was incriminating testimony from other officers; or there were allegations of a coverup.
Of the 54 cases, 43 involved at least one of these four factors, while 19 involved at least two.
The Walter Scott case in North Charleston, where police officer Michael Slager was charged with murder last week after a bystander video of his shooting of Scott surfaced, had four of the five factors present.
“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,” Philip M. Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green who studies arrests of police, told the Post. “It also has to be a case that prosecutors are willing to hang their reputation on.”
Jurors usually see the officer as “the good party in the fight,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and expert in police use of force. “To get them to buy into a story where the officer is the bad guy goes fundamentally against everything they believe.”
“It’s a question of whether it was too much force,” Harris said. “It’s a very flexible standard that has to be interpreted in every case. All this makes it very difficult to convict an officer.”