The decision by a Minnesota jury to convict Derek Chauvin of murdering George Floyd represented a rare instance in which a US police officer was held accountable for the killing of a black person.
Police killings are a frequent occurrence in the US. But there are few instances in which charges are then filed against the officers involved. The number of occasions when prosecutors actually win criminal convictions, as they did on Tuesday, is vanishingly small.
“The most common question that I get asked when I’m sitting in the living room of a family who has lost a loved one to a police homicide is: ‘Is this guy going to go to jail?’” Brian Dunn, managing partner at the Cochran Firm California, who has handled police misconduct cases for 26 years, said before the Chauvin verdict was read.
“In the early part of my career, I said, ‘Well, it could happen.’ But it hasn’t happened ever so I tell them that it won’t.”
Keith Ellison, the Minnesota attorney-general, acknowledged those realities last year after Chauvin was charged. “Trying this case will not be an easy thing,” he said. “Winning a conviction will be hard. History does show that there are clear challenges here.”
One of the most comprehensive databases on police violence is maintained by Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and a former police officer. According to Stinson’s research, about a thousand people are killed each year by US police — mostly by shooting. Less than 2 per cent of those deaths resulted in charges filed against officers.
Since 2005 Stinson has counted 140 cases of police being arrested on charges of murder or manslaughter as a result of an on-duty shooting. Of the 97 cases that have so far been concluded, only seven resulted in murder convictions. More than half were dismissed or resulted in acquittals. Some were reduced to lesser offences.
A few years ago, Stinson expected that would begin to change as a result of the widespread use of police body cameras to capture such incidents. Videos, like that of Floyd’s death, have gone viral, zooming around the world and inflaming communities. But they have yet to alter the legal statistics.
Video’s limited power to sway juries in police cases was previewed 30 years ago in Los Angeles, when four white officers who beat the black motorist Rodney King with batons and fists were charged with excessive force after a video taken by a Sony Handycam recorder documented their savagery. King was left with a fractured skull and brain damage but the officers were acquitted the following year.
“As a general statement, law enforcement is exempt from law enforcement,” Stinson said. “Police officers do not like to arrest other police officers.”
While laws vary from state to state, prosecutions generally crumble on the provision that officers may use deadly force if they reasonably believe themselves to be in imminent danger.
Jurors raised to view police as trusted authority figures are inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt in matters that often involve split-second decisions, according to Kelly Welch, a sociologist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
“It is also possible that when people perceive that an officer’s role is to be punitive, authoritarian or intimidating, they believe that excessive use of force is actually part of a police officer’s job and, thus, not something for which one should be held criminally responsible,” Welch said.
Police also benefit from the fact that they write the first reports about shooting incidents, and so can shape the narrative. Their powerful unions often pressure district attorneys not to prosecute, and limit police co-operation if they do. Race, inevitably, is often a factor even if it is not easily quantified, say experts. “Race is always at play in these cases,” Stinson said.
Floyd’s death came after several high-profile cases in recent years in which black men and women were killed by police in circumstances that appeared highly dubious — and yet which resulted in no charges.
Police killings rarely result in a conviction
Eric Garner, 43
Choked to death on July 17 2014 in Staten Island, New York
Grand jury declined to indict; officer fired in 2019
Michael Brown, 18
Shot dead on August 9 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri
Grand jury declined to indict; another local prosecutor reviewed the case five years later and declined to bring charges
Tamir Rice, 12
Shot dead on November 22 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio
Grand jury declined to indict, with some noting the toy gun held by Rice
Breonna Taylor, 26
Shot dead on March 13 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky
One officer charged, and later fired, for the lesser charge of wanton endangerment of Taylor’s neighbours, but not for her death. A trial is scheduled to take place in August
Freddie Gray, 25
Died of spinal injury on April 19 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland
Six police officers faced charges, including second-degree murder; none were convicted
In 2014, after the police shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, a local grand jury declined to bring charges against the officer, Darren Wilson — as did the Department of Justice and a local prosecutor. That event ignited months of civil unrest and gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
That same year, a Staten Island, New York, grand jury declined to indict an officer who killed Eric Garner, another black man, after applying an illegal chokehold. It took another five years for the police commissioner to fire the officer, Daniel Pantaleo.
The nation has since recoiled at the deaths of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and Breonna Taylor, among others. In the midst of the Chauvin trial, Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old black man, was shot dead during a traffic stop in a nearby Minneapolis suburb by an officer who later claimed to have mistaken her gun for a taser. She has been charged with second-degree manslaughter.
In New York, authorities have tried to make police more accountable by removing cases from local prosecutors, who might be more susceptible to police pressure, and handing them to the state attorney-general.
In California, the law has been rewritten so that officers can no longer use deadly force when it is “reasonable” but instead when it is “necessary”. Neither change has yet had an appreciable effect, say experts.
To Dunn, the treatment of a police officer accused of using excessive force while on duty is distinct from any other misconduct they might commit — be it sexual assault or stealing evidence.
“[Authorities] don’t have any patience for officers that steal drugs or money from suspects,” he said. “But when you start talking about the narrow subset of police officers that use excessive force and claim that they did so in self-defence, there is a lot of pushback against that.”