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A former policeman was found guilty of killing a black teen. Why is conviction so rare?

A Texas jury this week convicted former officer Roy Oliver for murdering 15-year-old Jordan Edwards and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. That outcome was very different from most high-profile police shootings; it's extremely rare for on-duty officers to be tried, let alone convicted. Yamiche Alcindor talks to activist Brittany Packnett and Philip Stinson of Bowling Green State University.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We have reported frequently in recent years on incidents of police shootings, gun violence and community reaction to them.

    One familiar question that arises in these cases, are police being held to account for their actions?

    Yamiche Alcindor looks at one case in Dallas.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In Texas, a rare guilty verdict followed by an even rarer sentence in a police shooting case.

  • Man:

    We, the jury, having found the defendant, Roy Oliver, guilty of murder…

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Last night, a Dallas County jury sentenced former police officer Roy Oliver to 15 years in prison for killing Jordan Edwards.

    On Tuesday, Oliver was convicted of murdering the 15-year-old.

    Edwards' family and friends welcomed the verdict. After the sentencing, the teen's stepmother had mixed emotions.

  • Charmaine Edwards:

    We're thankful for the verdict that we received. Although we wanted more years, this is a start for us, and we can get some kind of closure. So we're thankful.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Jordan Edwards died on April 29, 2017, when Oliver opened fire into a moving car of black teenagers who were leaving a party. He and his partner had responded to reports of underage drinking.

    Oliver claimed the car was moving toward his partner and that he had no choice but to shoot. The body-cam video show just the opposite. The car was actually heading away from the officers. Oliver's partner also testified he wasn't in danger and he called Oliver trigger-happy.

    The outcome of this case was very different from most high-profile police shootings. It's extremely rare for on-duty officers to be tried, let alone convicted, in fatal shootings. A study from Bowling Green State University found that between 2005 and April 2017, 80 police officers were charged with murder or manslaughter for on-duty shootings. Only 35 percent were convicted.

    On Tuesday, a lawyer for the Edwards family took note of that.

  • Daryl Washington:

    This guilty of murder to us is just — when you think about it, you think about all the cases, all the unarmed black and brown men and women who have been victims to police brutality, and who have not received justice.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Oliver is the first police officer found guilty of murder in Dallas County since 1973.

    For more on this week's conviction and what, if anything, it might mean to the broader issues related to policing, we turn to Brittany Packnett. She's an activist and an educator. And Dr. Philip Stinson, he's a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University. His research, which we mentioned in our story just now, focuses in part on police shootings.

    Thank you to both of you.

    Brittany, I'm going to start with you.

    You emerged as a national voice after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The officer in that case was, controversially, not indicted.

    What do you make of the guilty verdict and the sentencing of Roy Oliver? What do you think it'll mean to the Black Lives Matter movement and to our nation as a whole?

  • Brittany Packnett:

    Well, I think it depends, honestly. It depends on whether or not this is going to set a trend or this is going to be an anomaly.

    Unfortunately, all of our past experience shows us that this is probably going to be an anomaly, that, at the end of the day, we finally actually saw a police officer be convicted, not just of a shooting, but of a shooting of a young black man.

    And we know that, historically, less than 1 percent of the officers who shoot black people are ever convicted of that crime. And so we're glad to see some kind of justice happen in this case. But we actually don't think that it's enough. And until this is actually a trend of accountability and prevention, we certainly won't be satisfied.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And, Dr. Stinson, Brittany is talking about trends.

    Why is it so rare for police officers to be sentenced, convicted and even tried in fatal interactions?

  • Philip Stinson:

    Well, the best estimate that I can give you is that between 900 and 1,000 times each and every year, on-duty police officers shooting kill someone in agencies all across the United States.

    And only a handful of times each year is an officer actually charged with murder or manslaughter. So only 93 have been charged since the beginning of 2005. And the reason why we have so few is because most police shootings are found to be legally justified, in other words, that an officer had a reasonable apprehension of an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or deadly force being directed at the officer or someone else.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Now, turning back to the case of Jordan Edwards, his family welcomed the verdict, but his stepmother said that she wished the officer had gotten more time.

    How does her reaction gel with your reaction and the experiences that you have had and the work that you have done?

  • Brittany Packnett:

    So I'm conflicted.

    I don't actually believe in the current correctional state as it stands. And I actually think that we should be discussing alternatives to prison.

    However, the kind of justice in this country requires that people who commit a crime are punished by going to prison. And in a state like Texas, where the death penalty exists, 15 years hardly seems like enough for taking Jordan Edwards' life.

    I certainly don't believe in the death penalty, but there is a wide chasm between 15 years and the death penalty, and especially when we look at the kind of disproportionate prison sentencing that occurs in the state of Texas. We know that at a rate of 4-1 black men and black people are convicted more than white people are and have longer sentences than they — than white people do in Texas.

    And so I certainly don't think that 15 years is enough. I agree with his stepmother. And yet I am hopeful not just to see more justice and accountability on the back end, but I actually wish that Jordan Edwards were still alive.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    What Brittany is talking about is really about the criminal justice system in this country. We have been having a conversation nationally about the policing and about the police's relationship with African-American people.

    Have you, Dr. Stinson, seen any change in the way that prosecutors or judges or juries interact with police officers after these fatal interactions?

  • Philip Stinson:

    No, I think we haven't seen any trends in terms of anything changing.

    If anything, in the last few years, I think that we have seen perhaps prosecutors taking a closer look at these cases, being more willing to bring charges when it's appropriate.

    Prosecutors generally decide to bring a case if they think they can obtain a conviction. They're worried about their win rate. But in these cases, prosecutors are starting to look at the broader picture of simply doing justice, which is what prosecutors are supposed to do. And they know that these are not easy cases to win.

    And they may actually lose the case in terms of not being able to obtain a conviction. But I hope that that doesn't deter prosecutors in the future from bringing these charges when it's appropriate.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It's still very, very rare, Brittany, for a police officer to even being indicted, let alone charged, let alone convicted.

    When you think about this, what do you make of the rarity of this, especially when we have video more and more of these interactions?

  • Brittany Packnett:

    Well, the problem is the standard.

    When you talk about whether or not a police officer felt as though their life was being threatened, you have to enter into that conversation perception of race, perception of gender, perception of class status.

    Often, blackness is treated as a weapon unto itself, when, in reality, it's not. There were so many times in the streets of Ferguson that we were armed with nothing but cardboard signs and cell phones and ourselves, but we were treated like threats.

    And so if that continues to be the standard, we will continue to see more and more police officers not actually be held to account for these activities.

    The other point, though, is that there are ways in which state legislatures, police unions and police — police departments themselves can actually take this on. We have done a lot of research at Campaign Zero that shows the kind of use of force policies and the kind of changes in police union policies and state legislation that can actually help not only prevent these kinds of crimes, but ensure accountability on the back end.

    So we know that there are eight different use of force policies that if a police department adopts them, there will be a dramatic shift and decline in police violence. The question is, will there be the will to actually go and do those things?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    So are you encouraged with where things are going right now?

  • Brittany Packnett:

    I am encouraged by the fortitude of the people. I'm encouraged by their continued courage.

    And I am encouraged that we are at least continuing to have this conversation, that we have not let it go by the wayside, even though there's so much happening in this country right now.

    I'm certainly not encouraged by the direction of the criminal justice system. And yet I will always believe in the people.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thank you so much, both of you, for joining me, Brittany Packnett and Dr. Philip Stinson.

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