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More officers have been charged in fatal police shootings in 2021. Not everyone sees progress.

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More officers have been charged in fatal police shootings in 2021. Not everyone sees progress.

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On Tuesday, manslaughter charges were filed against three police officers in suburban Philadelphia after investigators said the trio heard gunshots outside a high school football game last summer and fired back at a crowd. Stray police bullets fatally struck an 8-year-old girl and injured three others, according to charging documents.

It is the first publicly known case in the country this year in which an officer has been charged with manslaughter or murder in connection with an on-duty shooting.

In recent years, such a shooting could have been dismissed as a tragedy by prosecutors and grand juries who were inclined to take officers at their word, said Cedric Alexander, former president of the National Organization of Forces of the United States. black orders and law enforcement agency MSNBC. analyst. But that can change.

“We are all paying more attention to process, and prosecutors know that investigations need to be thorough and more balanced,” Alexander said.

Historically, charges against officers who use lethal force remain rare, and convictions on serious charges even more unusual. But police experts say there has been a noticeable push in the other direction: with growing pressure on prosecutors to thoroughly investigate cases and guilty verdicts in recent trials against officers, charges and convictions for murder in the line of duty are no longer unbelievable.

In 2021, 21 police officers in the United States were charged with murder or manslaughter stemming from an on-duty shooting, the highest in a single year, according to a Bowling Green State criminal justice professor database. University, Philip Stinson, who began tracking such incidents. in 2005. His data focuses only on police shooting deaths and is initially based on media reports.

Over the past five years, 16 officers have been charged in 2020; 12 in 2019; 10 in 2018; and seven in 2017.

“I think we’re seeing a change. Although it’s not a drastic change, the public is asking for more accountability,” Alexander said.

But despite the record number of police charged, Stinson said, the increase does not reflect a statistically significant change because the sample size remains small. Every year, police kill around 1,000 people across the country, according to Mapping Police Violence, an organization that collects data on police use of force.

Stinson said he is not convinced that prosecutors are necessarily vigorous in the way they bring charges, but rather, when a conviction occurs, it simply indicates that there was enough evidence that the actions of an officer were so extraordinary that they overstepped protocol.

Of the 155 officers charged with murder or manslaughter since 2005, only about a third have resulted in a conviction for a crime, while a third have not and the rest of the cases are still pending. noted Stinson. Black Americans are also being killed by police at more than double the rate of white Americans, according to analysis by the Washington Post database.

High-profile convictions of police officers last year have shaped public perceptions that there can be consequences, including when a murder involves a person of color, Alexander said.

In April, a jury found Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, guilty of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd, a black man killed in 2020 when Chauvin knelt on his neck – a act that sparked global protests calling for an end to institutional racism.

Eight months later, in the same courtroom as Chauvin, former Minneapolis suburban police officer Kim Potter was convicted of manslaughter in the fatal April 2021 shooting of the black motorist Daunte Wright. Potter maintained that she accidentally killed Wright when she took his gun for her Taser.

A third police officer, Eric DeValkenaere, who served in Kansas City, Missouri, was convicted in November of manslaughter and felony charges with a weapon in the fatal shooting of Cameron Lamb, a black man, in a 2019 in which prosecutors said police filed evidence. .

“While it’s not a drastic change, the public is asking for more accountability.”

cop expert cedric alexander said

Other upcoming trials will also test whether it becomes more common to secure convictions against police, including one expected this month in Kansas, against an officer charged with manslaughter in the murder of a black man in his driveway in 2017; in Texas, against a former Fort Worth police officer who was charged with murder in the 2019 death of Atatiana Jefferson, a black woman who was shot through a window of her family’s home while babysitting ; and in Minneapolis, against three former police officers who also face federal and state charges related to Floyd’s death.

Although there appears to have been a recent increase in the prosecution or indictment of police officers, the continuing lack of comprehensive national data on a variety of measures – police use of force, number of deaths at the hands of policing and filing charges – only offers an incomplete picture, said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor at the University of South Carolina who studies high-risk policing.

He said a uniform data collection system would help researchers and policymakers better understand trends over time in police killings and why there might be an increase or decrease in prosecutions. Several factors — such as a local prosecutor better able to investigate, increased media attention to the cases, and shifts in public opinion influenced by a broader social movement — could be at play, Alpert said. .

“It’s so disheartening that we don’t have that data and don’t seem to care,” he added.

Last year saw high-profile convictions as the total number of fatal police shootings appeared to fall. A Washington Post database, which draws on media reports, counted at least 888 fatal shootings, down 13% from 2020.

More officers have been charged in fatal police shootings in 2021. Not everyone sees progress.

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Although the coronavirus pandemic did not curb fatal police shootings in 2020, researchers say, experts say the apparent decrease in 2021 may be explained by policy changes that some police departments took effect as a result of racial justice protests or some officers being more cautious or even fearful of the consequences of using deadly force.

Patrick Yoes, president of the Fraternal National Order of Police, whose membership includes more than 360,000 officers, said the officers’ charges and convictions should be seen as isolated incidents and do not represent all of the law enforcement. In addition, he said, the ongoing expectations that there will be charges against officers or dissatisfaction with the outcome of a trial when an officer is acquitted and the “overall dehumanization of enforcement of the law” due to anti-police rhetoric have made policing more difficult and can impede progress.

“There’s nothing wrong with saying we need to improve the criminal justice system, but we think law enforcement is also in crisis mode,” Yoes said.

The complex nature of investigations involving police killings and whether an officer should even be charged has become a source of tension in Delaware County, where the three Sharon Hill Police Department officers are facing a count each of intentional homicide and manslaughter, as well as 10 counts each of reckless endangerment.

Those officers – Devon Smith, 34, Sean Dolan, 25 and Brian Devaney, 41 – have been released on bail and are due to appear in a preliminary hearing this month. Their lawyer said in a statement that the Aug. 27 shooting that claimed Fanta Bility’s life was a “terrible tragedy caused by armed and violent criminals who turned a high school football game into a crime scene.”

Officers patrolled as a crowd left the football game and gunfire rang out. Officers then “unloaded their duty weapons toward the Academy Park football field,” Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said in a statement.

Fanta was killed in the volley of gunfire, and her 12-year-old sister was among the injured.

Protesters demonstrate to call for police accountability in the death of 8-year-old Fanta Bility at the Delaware County Courthouse in Media, Pennsylvania on January 13, 2022. Matt Rourke/AP

Investigators said the first shots came from an argument between a group of young men who were about a block from the stadium.

One of the officers told investigators they thought they were under fire when the scene erupted into chaos, according to charging documents.

But as some community members and civil rights groups rallied to bring charges against the officers, Stollsteimer, who was elected a Democrat in 2019 on a reform platform, made the point. under scrutiny for its decision to initially charge two teenage boys, both black, with murder. in connection with Fanta’s death.

Stollsteimer’s office, however, dropped the murder charges once a grand jury recommended charges against the officers. Other charges against the teens are pending, and one pleaded guilty to aggravated assault for injuring a child and unlawful possession of a firearm, prosecutors said.

Ultimately, whether or not the charges against the officers lead to a trial and conviction, this latest case underscores the need for cooperation and trust between police, prosecutors and the public, Alexander said. .

“We have to remember that there is a long history between communities of color and the police and wounds that have yet to be healed,” he said.

More officers have been charged in fatal police shootings in 2021. Not everyone sees progress.

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