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Fatal Shootings by Police Rarely Prosecuted

The second issue was that the cops who killed them often walked away with no consequences for their actions.

There are, on average, around a thousand people shot and killed by law enforcement officers in the U.S. annually. While at times circumstances may justify the fatal use of force, from 2005-2020, only 126 cops were charged with manslaughter or murder while on-duty. That works out to less than eight per year – a prosecution rate of less than 1%. 

Some criminal justice experts believe those numbers are too low to reflect the harsh reality of that many dead civilians.

“In my opinion, it’s got to be that more of the fatal shootings are unjustified,” criminal justice expert Philip Matthew Stinson of Bowling Green State University told Vox.

Even in the instances where cops were charged for their actions, there have been very few convictions. Out of the 126 mentioned above, 95 had been prosecuted as of December 2020. Only seven received murder convictions. Another 37 were found guilty of lesser charges, some of which resulted in no time behind bars at all.

A growing public awareness of police violence has driven prosecutions of killer cops to more than double since 2015 – from five a year to 13 – yet that still represents under 2% of fatal police shootings. The rarity of charging and convicting law enforcement for exceeding their authority points to several barriers within the system that must be overcome. 

The first problem is that cops are very reluctant to act against other cops. Criminal cases usually center around evidence and witnesses, but because the primary witnesses to cop-involved shootings tend to be other police offices, their statements are often incomplete or misleading. Additionally, because the location of the killing is seldom treated as a crime scene, little if any evidence is gathered. The lack of cooperative witnesses and physical evidence make it hard to build a case against the shooter.

Second, prosecuting attorneys risk alienating their allies and may endanger their own careers by pursuing charges against cops. Prosecutors rely on police to gather evidence for virtually all criminal cases and thus tend to have strong working relationships with law enforcement. Putting their co-workers on trial often amounts to a conflict of interests. The difficulty of obtaining evidence or the cooperation of other officers also stack the odds against being able to convict a cop. Because most prosecutors must campaign for their offices on the strength of conviction rates, they prefer not to try cases they are not likely to win.

A further obstacle to successful prosecution is that judges usually side with police if questions surrounding the circumstances of a shooting arise.

“There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility,” civil rights attorney David Rudovsky told Vox. “And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction.”

Finally, the law itself allows cops to employ force not only in the face of actual threats but also perceived ones. In most states, it boils down to whether or not an officer’s actions could be seen as reasonable in the heat of the moment. When faced with such an ambiguous standard, juries are hesitant to return a guilty verdict.

Last year’s protests made clear that there’s a growing public awareness of our nation’s broken system of justice. The question that remains is what can be done to fix it.

Some necessary changes, like increased accountability for law enforcement and a public more open to seeing the victim’s perspective, cannot be easily instituted or measured, but enacting some specific policies would make an immediate difference. Having independent prosecutors investigate use of force by cops would avoid conflicts of interest and other barriers to full and impartial investigations. Doing away with “qualified immunity,” which shields police from civil liability for their actions, would reduce the tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. Another step would be to clarify – and in some cases narrow – the scope of what actions are reasonable in the line of duty. 

Perhaps the biggest stride that can be taken would be to focus on fewer people getting shot by cops rather than what happens after the fact. That would mean changing both the culture within police departments and the way officers are trained, but there are no easy fixes for what’s broken in our criminal justice system. 


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