At least 14 cops have been charged in recent months with committing murder, homicide, or manslaughter while on duty. On Tuesday, a judge ruled that two Albuquerque policemen must stand trial for killing a homeless man as he appeared to surrender. The same day, “two former East Point police officers were indicted on charges that they murdered a 24-year-old father by repeatedly using their Tasers on him while he was handcuffed and sitting in a creek,” The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported.
On Monday, The Washington Post reported that “a former Fairfax County police officer was charged with second-degree murder, nearly two years after he shot an unarmed Springfield man who stood with his hands raised in the doorway of his home.”
At the end of July, prosecutor Joe Deters announced that University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing will face murder charges for shooting an unarmed motorist during a traffic stop. In June, a South Carolina grand jury indicted former officer Michael T. Slager for shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott in the back as he ran away from a traffic stop.
In May, a Baltimore grand jury indicted six cops on homicide and assault charges in the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody. And a Tulsa deputy who grabbed his gun instead of his taser was charged with manslaughter in April.
There are a couple of ways to contextualize these numbers.
Observers have noted the fact that American police officers kill orders of magnitude more people than their counterparts in other western democracies. Now, the number of U.S. cops arrested for killings in the last five months exceeds the total number of people shot and killed by cops in England going back five years. This is particularly extraordinary given how reluctant many U.S. prosecutors are to file charges against police, and how much deference police reports are given in the absence of video or forensic evidence, like a bullet in the back, that blatantly contradicts their story.
Are U.S. police now being charged at a higher rate than before? Maybe. Over a seven-year period ending in 2011, “41 officers in the U.S. were charged with either murder or manslaughter in connection with on-duty shootings,” The Wall Street Journal reported in 2014, citing research by Philip Stinson, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University. That figure works out to an average of 5.8 officers charged per year, but excludes officers charged in non-shooting deaths.
In a phone interview on Tuesday, Professor Stinson told me that in a period stretching from May 2005 to April 2015, 54 officers were charged for on-duty killings where they shot someone, working out to 5.4 officers charged per year. But that figure excludes non-shooting incidents, like when cops kill someone with a Taser or car.
Stinson also has data in which cases are the unit of measure.
Over that same seven-year period stretching from 2005 to 2011, there were 46 cases of cops being charged for on-duty killings of any kind––6.5 cases per year on average. The 14 officers charged over the past five months works out to an annualized rate of 33.6 cases per year, or more than five times the usual rate.
(The number of cases for on-duty and off-duty killings was much higher: 127 cases in that same time period, which works out to 18.1 cases per year.)
If prosecutors and grand juries are to be trusted, cops murder or unlawfully slaughter an extraordinary number of people. And while it may be that the five-month period we’re in now will look like just an unusual cluster, if the rate at which cops are indicted for killings continues at this pace, then we’re witnessing a sharp disjuncture with the recent past.
In yet another case, “a judge in Cleveland said that he believes there is probable cause to charge a police officer with murder for the death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy fatally shot while playing with a toy gun last year,” The Washington Post reported in June, but the ruling, “does not amount to formal charges being filed against the officers involved.” Regardless of how many officers are charged in coming months, the year-end number of cops charged will be scandalous, even though it almost certainly undercounts the number of unjust killings. Defenders of the status quo in policing should wake up to the need for reforms.