When the 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,” citing how uncommon it is for a cop to be found guilty in the United States.
However, a number of police officers have since been indicted, indicating that the justice system may be less reluctant to pursue rogue officers. Despite the fact that police kill an average of 1,000 people each year, according to a Bowling Green State University count, only 110 officers were charged with murder between 2005 and 2015. Only 42 people were convicted, and only five were found guilty of murder.
According to Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who is now a law professor at the University of South Carolina, the legal framework is “very deferential” to officers because it gives them “a great deal of discretion.”
Agents have the legal authority to kill as long as their use of force is deemed “reasonable” in light of the perceived risk.
Furthermore, any investigation is frequently conducted by their own colleagues and under “very protective” rules, according to Stoughton, who testified at the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer found guilty of murdering Floyd.
Local prosecutors have “a strong degree of professional reliance” on the police, which can sometimes lead them to “interpret the case in a way that’s maybe friendlier to the police than it should be,” he said.
However, a shift appears to be taking root in the aftermath of the Chauvin trial.
In April, a suburban Minneapolis policewoman was charged with manslaughter after 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 in his vehicle, and three Washington state officers were charged with suffocating a Black man who, like Floyd, pleaded “I can’t breathe” before dying.
Three Hawaii police officers were charged with murder or complicity in murder in June after shooting a 16-year-old.
Change is also visible in the courts. A jury in Alabama found a police officer guilty of murder after he shot and killed a suicidal man three years earlier.
In addition, a federal court sentenced a St. Paul police officer to six years in prison for unjustly beating up a Black man in his fifties. “My impression is that prosecutors are looking a little harder at some of these incidents than they have in the past,” Stoughton said. Jurors may also be “a little more willing to disbelieve an officer, maybe a little less willing to give the officer the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
“Prosecutors are under pressure,” said Gloria Browne Marshall, a constitutional law professor at City University of New York. “You have video evidence of heinous crimes committed by police officers… You have societal pressure, protests, and media coverage “She stated.
However, the African-American academic cautioned that people should not interpret these few cases as evidence of a larger trend toward change, because the vast majority of deaths caused by police are still not prosecuted.
For example, no charges were filed against the police officers who shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr. on April 21 in North Carolina, a case that sparked outrage across the country.
Browne Marshall cautioned that the justice system should not rely on the goodwill of a few prosecutors, but rather implement structural reforms to end police impunity for good. “The corruption is far too pervasive. It’s been going on for far too long “She stated.
Former President Barack Obama stated as much after applauding the Chauvin decision. “If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that true justice entails far more than a single verdict in a single trial.”