by Dale Chappell
An East Pittsburgh Police Officer was charged with criminal homicide June 27 in the shooting death of Antwon Rose Jr., a 17-year-old who ran from police during a traffic stop but was unarmed and posed no threat to anyone.
Experts say this type of charge against an officer is hard to come by. Philip Stinson, a former police officer and now law professor at Bowling Green State University, said the charge against Michael Rosfeld, the officer who shot Rose, arose because authorities were forced to do something, with cellphone video of the shooting, eyewitness statements, conflicting statements by Rosfeld, and peaceful marches demanding “Justice for Antwon.” “I couldn't think of a more horrific fact pattern,” he said.
Rosfeld is only the 87th officer charged with murder in such a case in the last 13 years.
Prosecutors face high hurdles in these cases. Many people believe cops are more honest than those they police, making it difficult to convict. But that is changing, thanks to bystander videos as evidence. “It is because of the existence and publication of the video by a bystander that charges were filed” against Rosfeld, Stinson said. Such videos have triggered criminal charges in several police shootings.
Shootings by officers in small-town departments, like East Pittsburgh, are more troubling, said Laurie Robinson, the George Mason University criminology professor who co-chaired the Obama Administration's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Research by the task force has shown those departments rely heavily on part-time officers who usually have inadequate training to make those split-second decisions, she said. Formed in the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri, shooting of Michael Brown, the task force developed 59 best practices for departments to follow to avoid regrettable incidents.
Robinson says that won't be easy. “The law enforcement culture really needs to own a guardian mindset rather than a warrior mindset,” she said. “We want them to be not an occupying force; we want them to be on the side of the citizens.” Until then, those citizens—armed with cellphone cameras—will continue to hold police accountable.
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