National outrage over police shootings of unarmed Black men seems to have reached the ears of prosecutors. According to Reuters, the number of police officers being charged in fatal shootings has hit the highest level in a decade. Prosecutions are being driven by evidence provided by body cameras and cell phone video.
Ezekiel Edwards, director of the criminal law reform project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said public pressure had forced legislators, elected officials and prosecutors to act.
“It’s not that there has been this massive uptick in civilian deaths. It’s just that there has been this massive uptick in scrutiny and protests,” he said.
According to Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminology at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, a dozen police officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter this year. The average between the years of 2004 and 2014 was five. Stinson’s figures came from court records and media reports of police crimes and arrests.
That number might increase, as six Baltimore officers are set to go on trial for the death of Freddie Gray, a local man, who died from spinal injuries sustained from a “rough ride” in a police van. The FBI admits that it has not kept track of police killings, but a Washington Post database last week showed 796 fatal police shootings this year. Figures maintained by The Guardian stated there have been 927 police-related deaths from all causes in 2015.
However, charging officers is one thing— getting a conviction is something else. According to Stinson’s research, only 11 of the 47 officers charged from 2005 to 2014 have been convicted. Stuart Slotnick, a former state prosecutor in New York, said getting convictions was difficult because police are authorized to carry weapons and use deadly force. Slotnick told Reuters prosecutors are also reluctant to prosecute officers who often have to make split-second life-or-death decisions.
“Most of the cases are not clear cut incidents where a police officer goes totally rogue and commits a clear-cut crime,” said Slotnick.
Reuters said the latest officer convicted was Richard Combs, former police chief of Eutawville, S.C., who pled guilty in September to misconduct in connection with the 2011 shooting death of Bernard Bailey, a 54-year-old Black man who came to the police station to dispute a traffic ticket given to his daughter. An altercation ensued and Combs shot Bailey as he was driving away, according to NPR. Combs was later fired and the town of Eutawville paid Bailey’s family a $400,000 settlement.
Even though Combs was convicted, he won’t spend any time behind bars. Prosecutors dropped murder charges and gave him as 10-year suspended sentence, one-year of home detention and five years of probation, according to Reuters.