Narrow Road to Prosecuting Police for Killings; A Wall Blocks Murder Convictions

With the November 16 indictment of Jeronimo Yanez for the shooting death of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Height, Minnesota, there have now been twelve police officers criminally charged for shooting civilians on duty in 2016. Eighteen more were charged in 2015, reports Jennifer Bjorhus in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Her reporting draws on the media monitoring and data collection of Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University. Stinson has been chronicling this data since 2005, using systematic Google News searches, one part of a wide-ranging inquiry into police misconduct that can be seen in his many publications. (A 538 interview describes his work.) The thirty indictments in the last 23 months have come at a much faster pace than the 48 indictments Stinson has counted in the previous ten years, 2005-14.

Data sources: Prior to the emergence of Black Lives Matter, there was little appetite in the news media or government agencies for this kind of data, but news organizations have stepped in to the vacuum: The Guardian produces “The Counted,” a tabulation of all police killings and the Washington Post maintains “Fatal Force” chronicling deadly police shootings. Shamed by the lack of official data, the US Department of Justice announced plans to begin keeping a database of deaths in police custody and deadly police violent force in 2016, although it would rely on voluntary self-reporting for the latter. It is unclear if a Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department would continue this initiative.

Murder convictions remain elusive: The 78 indictments since 2005 have yielded 27 convictions. However, just one of those produced a murder conviction: Police officer James Ashby was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Jack Jacquez in the back in 2014; the victim was unarmed and had fled into his mother’s house. As explained in the video below, the Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Connor (1989) provides any cop who believed there was a threat to himself or others with a defense against prosecution.

As previously noted on this blog, in 1969 the magazine Ramparts offered a challenge to secure a murder conviction of a cop killing a Black man. The Guardian has tabulated over 500 black deaths in just the past 23 months. According to Stinson’s data, no convictions matching that description have been made in over 12 years.