More officers are being charged in fatal police shootings. Is it a sign of a real shift?

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On Tuesday, manslaughter charges were filed against three police officers in suburban Philadelphia after investigators say the trio heard gunshots outside of a high school football game last summer and returned fire in the direction of a crowd. Errant police bullets fatally struck an 8-year-old girl and injured three others, according to charging documents.

It became the first publicly known case in the country this year in which an officer was charged with either manslaughter or murder in connection with an on-duty shooting.

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In past years, such a shooting might have been brushed aside as a tragedy by prosecutors and grand juries who were inclined to take the word of officers, said Cedric Alexander, a former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement and an MSNBC law enforcement analyst. But that may be changing.

“We are all paying more attention to the process, and prosecutors know that investigations must be done thoroughly and in a more balanced way,” Alexander said.

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Historically, charges against officers who use lethal force remain rare, and convictions for serious charges even more unusual. But policing experts say there has been a noticeable nudge the other way: With growing pressure on prosecutors to thoroughly investigate cases and guilty verdicts reached in recent trials against officers, charges and convictions for killings in the line of duty are no longer beyond belief.

In 2021, 21 police officers in the United States were charged with murder or manslaughter resulting from an on-duty shooting, the highest in a single year, according to a database by Bowling Green State University criminal justice professor Philip Stinson that started tracking such incidents in 2005. His data focuses solely on police shooting deaths and relies initially on media reports.

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In the past five years, 16 officers were charged in 2020; 12 in 2019; 10 in 2018; and seven in 2017.

“I think we are seeing a shift. While this is not a sea change, the public is asking for more accountability,” Alexander said.

But despite the record number of police officers charged, Stinson said, the increase doesn’t reflect a statistically significant change because the sample size remains small. Each year, police kill about 1,000 people nationwide, according to Mapping Police Violence, an organization that collects police use-of-force data.

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Stinson said he’s not convinced prosecutors are necessarily being vigorous in how they bring charges, but rather, when a conviction does occur, it simply indicates there was enough evidence that an officer’s actions were so extraordinary they overstepped protocols.

Of the 155 officers charged with murder or manslaughter since 2005, only about one-third resulted in a conviction of some crime, while one-third did not and the rest of the cases are still pending, Stinson found. Black Americans are also killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans, according to a Washington Post database analysis.

High-profile convictions of police officers last year have shaped the public’s perception that there can be consequences, including when a killing involves a person of color, Alexander said.

A jury in April found Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, guilty of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in 2020 when Chauvin knelt on his neck — an act that spurred worldwide protests calling for an end to institutional racism.

Eight months later, in the same courtroom as Chauvin, former suburban Minneapolis police officer Kim Potter was convicted of manslaughter in the fatal shooting in April 2021 of Black motorist Daunte Wright. Potter maintained she accidentally killed Wright when she mistook her gun for her Taser.

A third police officer, Eric DeValkenaere, who served in Kansas, City Missouri, was convicted in November of involuntary manslaughter and armed criminal action in the fatal shooting of Cameron Lamb, a Black man, in a 2019 case in which prosecutors said police planted evidence.

Other upcoming trials will also test whether it’s becoming more common to win convictions against police, including one scheduled this month in Kansas, against an officer indicted on a count of involuntary manslaughter in the killing of a Black man in his driveway in 2017; in Texas, against a former Fort Worth police officer who was indicted for murder in the 2019 death of Atatiana Jefferson, a Black woman who was shot through a window of her family’s home while babysitting; and in Minneapolis, against three former police officers who also face federal and state charges in connection with Floyd’s death.

While it appears as if there’s been a recent bump in prosecutions or indictments against police officers, the ongoing lack of comprehensive national data on a variety of measurements — police use of force, the number of deaths at the hands of police and the filing of charges — only offers an incomplete picture, said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor who researches high-risk policing activities.

He said a uniform system of data collection would help researchers and policymakers better understand trends over time in police killings and why there may be a rise or fall in prosecutions. Several factors — such as a local prosecutor being more apt to investigate, an increase in media attention on cases and changing public opinion influenced by a larger social movement — could be at play, Alpert said.

“It’s so discouraging that we don’t have this data and don’t seem to care,” he added.

Last year, high-profile convictions occurred while the overall number of fatal police shootings appeared to fall. A Washington Post database, which sources media reports, counted at least 888 fatal shootings, a 13 percent decrease from 2020.

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While the coronavirus pandemic didn’t curb fatal police shootings in 2020, according to researchers, experts say the apparent decrease in 2021 may be explained by policy changes going into effect by some police agencies in the wake of racial justice protests or some officers being more cautious or even fearful about the consequences of using deadly force.

Patrick Yoes, the president of the national Fraternal Order of Police, whose membership includes more than 360,000 officers, said charges and convictions of officers should be viewed as isolated incidents and do not represent all law enforcement. Furthermore, he said, constant expectations that there be charges against officers or dissatisfaction with a trial’s outcome when an officer is acquitted and the overall “dehumanizing of law enforcement” from anti-police rhetoric have made policing more difficult and can impede progress.

“There’s nothing wrong with saying we need to improve the criminal justice system, but we believe law enforcement is in a crisis mode, too,” Yoes said.

The complex nature of investigations involving police killings and whether an officer should even be charged became a source of tension in Delaware County, where the three officers with the Sharon Hill Police Department face one count each of voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter, as well as 10 counts each of reckless endangerment.

Those officers — Devon Smith, 34, Sean Dolan, 25, and Brian Devaney, 41 — were granted bail and are scheduled to appear at a preliminary hearing this month. Their attorney said in a statement that the shooting on Aug. 27 that took the life of Fanta Bility was a “terrible tragedy caused by armed and violent criminals who turned a high school football game into a crime scene.”

The officers were on patrol as a crowd was leaving the football game and gunshots rung out. The officers then “discharged their service weapons in the direction of the Academy Park football field,” Jack Stollsteimer, the Delaware County district attorney, said in a statement.

Fanta was killed in the volley of shots, and her 12-year-old sister was among those wounded.

More officers are being charged in fatal police shootings. Is it a sign of a real shift?
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Investigators said the initial gunfire came from an argument among a group of young men who were about a block from the stadium.

One of the officers told investigators they believed they were coming under fire as the scene broke into chaos, according to charging documents.

But while some community members and civil rights groups rallied for charges against the officers, Stollsteimer, who was elected as a Democrat in 2019 on a reform agenda, drew scrutiny for his decision to initially charge two teenagers, both of whom are Black, with murder in connection to Fanta’s death.

Stollsteimer’s office, however, withdrew the murder charges once a grand jury recommended charges against the officers. Other charges against the teens are pending, and one of them pleaded guilty to aggravated assault for wounding a child bystander and illegal possession of a firearm, prosecutors said.

Ultimately, whether or not the charges against the officers lead to a trial and conviction, this latest case underscores how it takes cooperation and trust among police, prosecutors and the public, Alexander said.

“We have to remind ourselves that there’s a long history between communities of color and police and wounds that have yet to be healed,” he said.

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