Why do so few deadly police shootings end in police convictions?

Why do so few trials of police officers charged in on-duty shootings end in convictions? Most recently, the officers who shot and killed Philando Castile and Sylville Smith were acquitted by juries who saw video of the fatal encounters. John Yang discusses issues of race and deadly force with David Klinger of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Brittany Packnett, co-founder of Campaign Zero.

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    Now to issues of policing, race and the law, issues in the forefront of the news once again.

    John Yang has our look.

  • A warning:

    This story includes images of violence that viewers may find disturbing.

  • JERONIMO YANEZ, St. Anthony Police Department:

    Hello, sir.


    This week, the public got to see the dash-cam video of last July's fatal police shooting of Philando Castile outside St. Paul, Minnesota. Jurors had watched it several times before acquitting officer Jeronimo Yanez. A conversation about a broken taillight quickly turned tense.


    Sir, I have to tell you, I do have a firearm on me.


    OK. OK. Don't reach for it then. Don't pull it out.


    I'm not pulling it out.


    Don't pull it out.



    Prosecutors said Castile, who had a permit for the gun, was reaching for his driver's license. Yanez said he thought he was reaching for his gun. The day he was acquitted, Yanez was fired.

    Since 2005, 82 U.S. law enforcement officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter for on-duty shootings, according to Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson. So far, 29 have been convicted, five of them for murder.

    Yesterday, a jury found former Milwaukee police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown not guilty of reckless homicide for shooting Sylville Smith last August. In court, Smith's family shouted and cursed.

    Body-camera video caught Heaggan-Brown's brief chase of Smith. Heaggan-Brown's first shot came as Smith appeared to throw a gun over a fence. A second shot hit Smith in the chest.

  • DOMINIQUE HEAGGAN-BROWN, Milwaukee Police Department:

    Stop reaching! Stop — move! Move!


    He said he acted in self-defense. The shooting sparked two nights of riots.

    And police use of deadly force is under scrutiny again in Seattle, where officers in shot and killed Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant woman who had called police to report a burglary at her apartment Sunday. She had two kitchen knives and, her family said, mental health problems.

    As protesters took to the streets, Seattle police, who are investigating the incident, acknowledged the officers had less lethal options.

    So, why do so many — few — so few trials of police officers charged in on-duty shootings end in convictions?

    To explore that question, we're joined by two guests, first, on Skype, David Klinger. He's a criminologist at the University of Missouri-Saint Louis and a former Los Angeles police officer. And here in the studio, Brittany Packnett, a co-founder of Campaign Zero, which is pressing for police reform. She served on President Barack Obama's Police Reform Task Force and is one of a number of leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement.

    Thank you both for joining us.

    I want to ask you first, the two of you the same question. Brittany, let me start with you.

    Why does it — is it seemingly so few of these police trials, police shooting trials end in convictions?

  • BRITTANY PACKNETT, Co-Founder, Campaign Zero:

    It's because this is more than an individual issue. It's a systematic issue.

    So often we hear the conversation that it's about bad apples and bad actors, but, at the end of the day, if this were just about individuals, we wouldn't see less than 1 percent of convictions in all police shootings. Of the 1,155 people who were killed by police in 2016, there were only 13 charges brought, and so far we have seen no convictions.

    At the end of the day, this is a systematic issue that we have to look at, both from a cultural perspective and a policy one.


    David Klinger, what's you take?

    DAVID KLINGER, University of Missouri-Saint Louis: Well, there's really two issues.

    One is the number of charges that are levied. And then number two is the conviction rate for those where charges have been brought forth. And in terms of why so few charges are brought forth, I think, if you take an honest look at the vast, vast majority of officer-involved shootings, there is no criminal element whatsoever.

    For those that do lead to criminal charges, sometimes, there is overcharge, and then sometimes there are situations where I and friends of mine, others in this profession, we scratch our heads and don't understand how the acquittal came about. But we always have to trust in the jury, and that's where we rest with this.


    David, let my stay with you. Are the laws written in a way that makes it tougher for convictions?


    Well, I think one of the things that people have to understand is that there's basically a federal standard that was laid down in Graham vs. Connor, which is a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says you have to look at it through the eyes of a reasonable officer on the scene.

    And so what has happened over the years is that most states, that I'm aware of at least, they basically incorporate this standard of an objectively reasonable officer on the scene. And then what happens is, we have a situation where defense attorneys explain to the jury what a reasonable officer at the scene could have or should have done.

    And then the jury has to look at it that way typically. Now, there's always differences across the 50 states in terms of their justifiable homicide statute. But I think that's the core understanding across the country about how it is that police officers are to be judged.

    And so, consequently, when you have jurors who are novices getting educated, a good defense attorney makes an argument, and the jury says, oh, that make sense, I understand that that officer could have been fearful or could have perceived that his or her life was in jeopardy, and an acquittal is forthcoming, and, as I indicated, sometimes clearly so, and, other times, it leaves many of us who are in the profession scratching our head, because we know there's bad shootings and we know there's bad cops.


    Brittany, you have heard the explanation of the law from David. What's your response? What's your take on this?


    I would say it's twofold.

    One is that we actually do have to look at the letter of the law and the ways in which it's insufficient. At Campaign Zero, we did a report on the use of force. We found the research that there are eight policies that both police departments and state legislatures can take on that will demonstrably diminish the possibility of police violence.

    Very few police departments engage in five of — even five of those. And if it's not legal, then it's not punishable in the court system, so that's certainly an area in which we need to look. And we need to make those laws stronger.

    The other point, though, that we have to not be afraid the look at is the issue of race. At the end of the day, black people in this country are killed at a rate of three times higher than other folks by police. And if blackness is seen as the only weapon that you are armed with, it is still considered lethal in this country. We continue to find that in the number of charges and convictions that are brought.

    We continue to find that in places like Seattle with Charleena Myles — Lyles, rather. And, at the end of the day, my blackness is not a weapon. It's just my skin. Until we handle our issue of racism in this country, we're not going to see an issue — an end to this issue.


    A lot of cities try to address that, Brittany, very diversifying the police force, by getting more diverse faces on the police force. Is that an answer?


    I certainly think that's part of it.

    But it's not a single issue. And so we can't have a single answer, right? We have to look at issues of inherent bias, which, quite frankly, especially issues of anti-blackness, are not just about white people or whether or not you're a person of color.

    We also have to look at issues of training, support, again, use of force policies, making sure that, as a citizen, I can walk around and feel safe in my community by someone who has sworn an oath to serve and protect me.


    David, Brittany mentioned training. In the Seattle case we just heard in that tape piece, the police acknowledged those offers had non-lethal options that they didn't use.

    How much is this a training issue?


    I think a big piece of it.

    And I would argue that the race issue is one that gets overplayed. And what I mean by that is this. If we look at shootings that could have been prevented, and it goes back the training and tactics, we can pretty much eliminate, in my opinion, the race piece.

    So, for example, here in Saint Louis, myself and Rick Rosenfeld and two other colleagues were able to look at the spatial patterns of officer-involved shootings in the city of Saint Louis. And at first, it clearly looks as if race plays a role, but once you control for the levels of crime across neighborhoods, that drops out.

    And so that's one example of why I'm not going to get on to the issue of race being the key. I really think it has to deal with the tactical performance of police officers across the board dealing with whites, blacks, Hispanics, males, females, where they don't use sound tactics that then lead to the shootings that we scratch our heads over.

    And the issue with Seattle, when they say they had non-lethal options, that doesn't necessarily mean they had non-lethal options to be employed in that situation, but rather that they had non-lethal options with them.

    And so I'm not quite sure what that means. The Seattle situation may well have been one of those where they could have employed a non-lethal option and they didn't, or it may simply mean that they had them with them. And so we have to wait and see what the details show.


    Brittany, you mentioned both training and race. How do you balance those two issues?


    I don't think that it's an either/or proposition.

    I certainly agree that there are tactical issues, as Professor Klinger has already said. But if race weren't an issue, we wouldn't be being killed at three times the rate of others.

    We did this research at mapping police violence, which is another project of Campaign Zero. And from looking over three years of data for community violence across the 60 largest police departments in the country and comparing that to rates of police violence, there is absolutely no correlation between community violence and police violence.

    In fact, in places like Virginia Beach, where there is a very low incidence of community violence, there is a very high incidence of police violence, and everyone that Virginia Beach killed in 2015 was black.

    So, I refuse to ignore the race question in this issue. And if we do ignore race in this issue, then we do so at our peril.


    Brittany Packnett, David Klinger, thank you both for joining us.

    Sadly, I think this is an issue we will be talking about again. But thank you for joining us.


    Thank you.

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