- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 27, 2015

More than three times as many police officers are facing murder or manslaughter charges this year for on-duty shootings than in any other year over the past decade, according to a researcher who tracks such incidents.

An average of five police officers annually faced such charges from 2005 through 2014, said Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green State University criminologist who tracks police killings.

But this year alone, at least 16 officers have been charged with either murder or manslaughter in connection with the deaths of 13 people who were killed in on-duty shootings. One officer faced two separate charges for an on-duty and an off-duty shooting.

Mr. Stinson said some people suspect the reason for the uptick could be linked to a higher incidence of police encounters that are caught on video, and others say prosecutors are under more political pressure to investigate fatal incidents.

However, the number of cases in which charges are brought against police for on-duty fatal shootings pales in comparison with the estimated hundreds of people killed each year by officers who use deadly force. The number of fatalities this year through Dec. 21 ranges from 944 to 1,160.

But the rise this year in criminal charges against officers has plenty of observers, including criminologists and police union representatives.

Mr. Stinson said the prevalence of mobile phone videos capture encounters more frequently and can contradict an officer’s version of events.

“More of these cases have videos that are coming into play, quite often because they are not consistent with the statements that officers have made at scene,” Mr. Stinson said. “Investigators are looking at those and seeing big discrepancies.”

Discrepancies between officers’ statements and what appears on video have led to officers’ arrests within a matter of days in two on-duty shootings this year.

Within 72 hours of the fatal shooting of 6-year-old Jeremy Mardis in a Nov. 3 traffic stop, police arrested two Louisiana law enforcement officers, Lt. Derrick Stafford and Deputy Norris Greenhouse Jr., and charged them with second-degree murder.

Body camera footage from a third officer captured the Avoyelles Parish shooting, which also left Jeremy’s father injured.

Authorities initially said the officers, who were moonlighting as deputy city marshals in Marksville, Louisiana, on the night of the shooting, pursued the vehicle driven by Christopher Few because he had an open warrant.

Police later walked back those statements, and a state investigator called the videotaped shooting “the most disturbing thing” he had ever seen.

Although the body camera video that captured the shooting has not been publicly released, court documents describing the scene state that “Christopher Few’s empty hands are raised and visible inside the vehicle when gunfire becomes audible.”

The court cases against the two deputies are pending.

Hundreds of police shootings each year are deemed justified use of deadly force, and no charges are brought against the officers.

This year alone, the crowdsourced website Killed by Police had tallied 1,160 fatal police shootings as of Dec. 21. Through its project “The Counted,” The Guardian had tallied 1,095 fatal police shootings as of the same date, noting that 535 of those killed were white, 272 were black and 169 were Hispanic.

Among the hundreds of cases was a quick turnaround in charges against North Charleston Police Department Officer Michael Slager, who was videotaped shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott in the back as he tried to run away after an April 4 traffic stop.

The South Carolina police officer said Scott had wrestled away his Taser and that he shot Scott out of self-defense, but a bystander’s video captured the final moments of the encounter and showed a different story. The video shows Scott running away from Officer Slager, who fires eight times.

Officer Slager was arrested and charged with first-degree murder April 7, less than an hour after the video was handed over to the city’s mayor and police chief.

Recordings of fatal police encounters are nothing new. Police dashboard cameras and surveillance footage often are taken into evidence.

William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, isn’t sure that the increased number of charges is a result of more video evidence. He noted instead the political climate in which the videos are viewed.

“The uptick is a reflection of political decisions,” he said. “Politicians are thinking, ‘I need to get ahead of this and respond to it.’”

Even he was shocked at the video capturing the final moments of Scott. “I don’t think you can defend what happened there,” Mr. Johnson said.

The count of officers charged this year in fatal, on-duty shootings is based on data from Mr. Stinson and media reports on police-involved shootings, and does not take into account other deaths in police custody, such as that of Freddie Gray, who was mortally wounded while handcuffed in the back of a Baltimore Police Department transport van.

Nor does the figure tally any fatal incidents that occur while the officer is off duty, such as the Christmas Eve shooting in a Charlotte, North Carolina, shopping mall, where a police officer was moonlighting as mall security.

Mr. Johnson said that with more visual evidence about police killings now publicly accessible and with bystander footage sometimes posted straight to social media, prosecutors are under increased pressure to act.

They may want their communities to see them being responsive to calls for action or to avoid scrutiny by sending a case to court and “washing their hands” of whatever decision a jury returns, Mr. Johnson said.

Others say prosecutors’ own political goals or pressures have been revealed in several recent cases.

“We have some ambitious prosecutors out there,” said David Klinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, pointing specifically to the State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby in Maryland, who is overseeing the cases of six Baltimore police officers in the Freddie Gray death.

In a sign that some read as the crumbling of Ms. Mosby’s case against the Baltimore officers, the trial of the first officer charged in connection with Gray’s death ended this month in a mistrial.

“It strikes me that anyone who wants to look at the prosecutor there with an honest pair of eyes, sees she is an ambitious politician and she is in way over her head,” Mr. Klinger said.

Seven of the 13 deaths that resulted in charges against officers occurred this year; the others were in 2014 and 2013.

The longest amount of time that lapsed between a death and charges being brought was 29 months, in the case of Jermaine McBean. The 33-year-old was fatally shot July 31, 2013, as he walked home from a Florida pawnshop with an unloaded pellet gun in hand.

Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy Peter Peraza was indicted Dec. 11 on manslaughter charges in McBean’s death.

One sheriff’s deputy on the list, Joel Jenkins of the Pike County Sheriff’s Office in Ohio, was charged with murder in the fatal on-duty shooting of Troy Boyd after a high-speed chase and with involuntary manslaughter in a separate off-duty incident in which he is believed to have accidentally shot his neighbor while showing the man his firearm.

Mr. Klinger notes that while the threefold increase from five officers charged a year seems like a big uptick compared with the number of officer-involved shootings overall, it remains relatively rare for officers to be charged with breaking the law in shooting deaths.

“Often legally from the standards of state law, the police officer was well within his rights to shoot,” Mr. Klinger said. “For a criminal prosecution, you have a pretty high bar.”

Even if charges are brought, it doesn’t mean the officer will be found guilty. Already this year, one of the 16 officers charged has been acquitted.

A jury in November found Officer Lisa Mearkle, of the Hummelstown Police Department in Pennsylvania, not guilty of third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter charges in the February shooting death of 59-year-old David Kassick.

During the trial, Officer Mearkle said she was “only charged for political reasons.” Since her acquittal, she has vowed to return to the department.

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