When the police officer who killed George Floyd was found guilty of murder in April, the slain Black man’s lawyer hailed the verdict as a “turning point in history,” so rare is it for a cop to be found guilty in the United States.
But a handful of police officers have since been indicted — indicating the justice system may be a little less reluctant to pursue rogue officers.
Although police kill an average of 1,000 people every year, only 110 officers were charged with murder between 2005 and 2015, according to a count by Bowling Green State University.
Only 42 were convicted, and of those, just five were found guilty of murder.
The legal framework is “very deferential” to police officers because it grants them “a great deal of discretion,” said Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who became a professor of law at the University of South Carolina.
Agents have the right to kill as long as their use of force is considered “reasonable” in the face of the perceived risk.
In addition, any investigation is often conducted by their own colleagues and according to rules that are “very protective,” added Stoughton, who testified at the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer found guilty of murdering Floyd.
And at the judicial level, local prosecutors have “a strong degree of professional reliance” on the police and this can sometimes lead them “to interpret the case in a way that’s maybe friendlier to the police than it should be,” he said.
But since the Chauvin trial, a change seems to be taking root.
In April, a policewoman in suburban Minneapolis was charged with manslaughter for killing a young Black man during a routine traffic stop.
In May, a Virginia police officer was charged with the murder of a man who was shot dead man in his vehicle, and three Washington state officers face similar charges for suffocating a Black man who, like Floyd, pleaded “I can’t breathe” before he died.
In June, three police officers in Hawaii were charged with murder or complicity in murder for shooting a 16-year-old.
In the courts, too, change is noticeable. An Alabama jury found a police officer guilty of murder for shooting dead a suicidal man three years earlier.
And a federal court sentenced a policeman from St Paul to six years for beating up a Black man in his 50s for no reason.
“My sense is, prosecutors are looking a little harder at some of these incidents than they have previously,” said Stoughton.
He said that jurors also may be “a little more willing to disbelieve an officer, maybe a little bit less willing to give the officer the benefit of the doubt.”
“Prosecutors are under pressure,” noted Gloria Browne Marshall, a professor of constitutional law at City University of New York.
“You have video evidence of heinous acts on behalf of police officers…You have pressure from society and protests, and media coverage,” she said.
But the African-American academic said people need to be careful not to see in these few cases evidence of a wider trend towards change, because the vast majority of deaths caused by police are still not prosecuted.
For example, no charges were brought against the police officers who shot dead Andrew Brown Jr in North Carolina on April 21, a case which sparked anger across the country.
Browne Marshall warned that the justice system should not rely on the goodwill of a few prosecutors, but rather should adopt structural reforms to definitively tackle police impunity.
“The corruption is too deep. It’s gone on too long,” she said.
“The Derek Chauvin case is an anomaly,” she said. “How can that be replicated? That’s going to be the question. How can we replicate this across the country?”
Former President Barack Obama said as much after praising the Chauvin verdict. “If we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that true justice is about much more than a single verdict in a single trial.”