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Are more police officers facing prosecution? As the data shows, it's complicated.


This fall, a number of police officers are on trial, accused of killing people in the line of duty - three in Colorado, another three in Washington state, and more trials are looming as five officers in Memphis have been charged with second-degree murder for the beating death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. For years, the Black Lives Matter movement demanded that more police be prosecuted after such deaths. And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, some think that may now be happening.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Elaine Simons believes things are changing. In 2019, a former foster child of hers, a young man named Jesse Sarey, was shot to death in a struggle with a police officer in Auburn, Wash. At first, she says, the criminal justice system responded slowly.

ELAINE SIMONS: It wasn't until the murder of George Floyd in 2020 that it became a catalyst. Something woke up the world.

KASTE: After George Floyd, the officer who shot Simons' foster son was charged with second-degree murder and assault. Simons is waiting for the trial to start, probably early next year.

SIMONS: It does something to your spirit, you know? We want resolution.

KASTE: In the meantime, she's planning to watch the trial of three other cops charged with murder or manslaughter in an unrelated death in nearby Tacoma. She also stays in touch with families of other people killed by police. She just came back from New York, where she met the mother of Eric Garner. His death in 2014 sparked protests, especially when the officer who wrestled him to the ground was not criminally charged. Now, Simons says, families like Garner's are seeing what she calls a glimmer of hope.

SIMONS: Because they're starting to see, in different states, charges are starting to go forward, and that resolution is starting to look like almost a reality for a lot of people.

KASTE: But if you look at national numbers, it's not clear that things have changed that much. Criminologist Philip Stinson has been counting the number of state and local officers charged with murder or manslaughter for on-duty shootings every year since 2005.

PHILIP STINSON: Well, it certainly - it goes up after about 2014. But it's just a few cases. We go from maybe eight or nine or 15 to 15 or 20 instead.

KASTE: In other words, the number of cops charged for shooting deaths has gone from single digits a decade ago to low double digits now.

STINSON: And in the years where we have seen increases in terms of the numbers of officers charged, what we have noticed is that quite often that's a result of several officers being charged out of the same criminal incident. So it makes it look like there's more going on there.

KASTE: Instead of counting how many cops have been charged, you could count deaths and see how many of those lead to charges. That's how the Mapping Police Violence project does it. The founder is Samuel Sinyangwe. He says the percentage of deaths that lead to criminal charges has been holding steady - between 1 and 3%, though there may be some lag time in his stats.

SAMUEL SINYANGWE: There are cases where prosecutors will charge an officer, you know, many months or even a year after the case. And so the numbers for more recent years might go up slightly.

KASTE: One reason to think that the numbers might go up is that in some places, the laws have changed. Washington state, for instance, lowered the bar for convicting an officer. It's no longer necessary to prove, quote, "actual malice." California tightened the rules for when cops may use deadly force, and Colorado made it a crime for an officer to fail to intervene when another one uses excessive force.

TED BUCK: The threshold, I think, for charging an officer has most definitely changed over the last four or five years.

KASTE: Ted Buck is an attorney who defends police in civil actions in Washington state. He doesn't do many criminal cases for police because he says those are still relatively rare. And he doesn't expect criminal prosecutions to increase much either, despite that lower legal threshold. In part, he says, this is because of all the video evidence that we have now. Yes, it's true, he says, that video sometimes makes the case against an officer...

BUCK: But that same huge amount of evidence that is now available through video footage is also being looked at in all these other cases, and it's leading prosecutors to decide not to charge.

KASTE: And Buck thinks that's as it should be. Both he and criminologist Philip Stinson agree that the prosecution numbers are basically static right now. But while Buck believes that's because most police do the right thing, Stinson sees it as evidence that prosecutors are still hesitant to go after cops and that juries are still reluctant to convict them.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.