Fact check: Police rarely prosecuted for on-duty shootings

·7 min read

The claim: Police are the only shooters who are held responsible for deaths

Demonstrators protesting police violence against Black people have put a spotlight on accountability for law enforcement officers who fatally shoot about 1,000 people a year.

Those officers almost never face prosecution, but a Facebook post that’s been shared more than 240 times claims police are disproportionately held responsible for shootings.

“The only time we hold a shooter responsible is when it’s a cop,” the May 26 post claims. “Otherwise, it’s the gun, manufacturers, ammo companies and the NRA, not the criminals.”

Protests against police killings began to boil over after Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, was killed by police in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. They swept across the country last summer after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.

The user who posted the claim did not respond to a request for comment, and it was unclear from the post how they define responsibility.

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The U.S. criminal justice system is set up to do determine when someone who commits a crime should be held accountable. But the May 26 Facebook post fails to mention how unusual it is for law enforcement officers to be prosecuted.

“It’s very rare,” said Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green State University criminology professor who tracks police misconduct.

Police shootings

Before Brown’s death, the number of people police fatally shot each year was unclear. That’s when The Washington Post began counting police shootings.

The newspaper uses media sources, social media and police reports to track police shootings, and it has found police shoot and kill about 1,000 people a year, more than double the FBI’s count. Federal data remain incomplete because the vast majority of local law enforcement agencies are not submitting reports.

Since 2015, police have fatally shot more than 6,300 people, according to The Washington Post’s database. In that time, Stinson has tracked 91 officers who have been arrested for murder or manslaughter stemming from an on-duty shooting.

That means police were arrested for murder or manslaughter in a little more than 1% of fatal shootings since 2015.

Nonshooting deaths at the hands of police, such as Floyd’s, are not included in those datasets. Former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of Floyd’s murder in April after kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes. But the May 26 post specifically mentioned only shootings.

Earline K. (left) and Rosie Henderson work to collect and cover the Breonna Taylor memorial with a tarp to protect it from rain Sept. 27, 2020, in downtown Louisville, Ky.
Earline K. (left) and Rosie Henderson work to collect and cover the Breonna Taylor memorial with a tarp to protect it from rain Sept. 27, 2020, in downtown Louisville, Ky.

Stinson has been tracking crimes committed by nonfederal sworn officers since 2005.

Since then, 142 officers have been arrested for murder or manslaughter, but only seven have been convicted of murder. An additional 37 were convicted of lesser offenses, and 53 were not convicted. Forty-five of those criminal cases remain ongoing.

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Convictions are rare in fatal police shootings in part because officers generally have wide latitude in the use of force. It “becomes necessary and is permitted under specific circumstances, such as in self-defense or in defense of another individual or group,” according to the National Institute of Justice.

The Supreme Court developed a standard for reasonable use of force under the Fourth Amendment in a 1989 case. Among other things, the high court concluded it should be judged “from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene,” and not with the benefit of hindsight, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Use of force laws and policies vary across the states and law enforcement agencies.

Stinson wrote in 2015 that "almost all" police shootings are determined to be justified.

"That is, the officer had a reasonable apprehension of an imminent threat of deadly force or serious bodily injury being imposed against the officer or some other person," he wrote.

A district attorney in North Carolina said in May that three sheriff's deputies were justified in the fatal shooting of Andrew Brown, a 42-year-old Black man, while serving warrants for his arrest.

In the police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Lousiville, one officer was charged for firing shots that went into another home, but none were charged directly for shooting Taylor in a raid on her apartment.

Cleveland police officers also avoided charges in the 2014 shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, whose death was among those that sparked protests that fueled the early Black Lives Matter movement.

Gun crimes

Tracking how often gun homicides not committed by police officers are solved is more complicated.

Like federal data on police shootings, FBI figures on gun murders committed by the general population are incomplete because local agencies either provide incomplete information or don’t submit it at all.

Out of 14,000 murders reported to the FBI in 2019, more than 10,000 were committed with a gun. About 11,000 people were arrested for murder or non-negligent manslaughter in 2019, according to the FBI.

The FBI does not break down how many of the arrests were in gun cases. Agencies can “clear” a case in the FBI’s reporting system by making an arrest or charging a suspect or through “exceptional means,” such as when the offender is identified but has died.

The clearance rate for murder and non-negligent manslaughter in 2019 – looking at all methods of death, not just guns – was about 61%, FBI data shows.

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In 2019, Buzzfeed News worked with The Trace, a nonprofit funded in part by gun control advocates, to analyze data from the FBI and 22 police departments. They found murders and assaults committed with guns were less likely to be solved than other types of killings.

The solve rate for murders committed with a firearm was about 46% in 2017, according to the analysis of data from 202 urban police departments. That percentage reflects the number of crimes where a suspect was identified and, typically, criminally charged.

Our rating: Missing context

The claim that police are the only shooters who are held responsible is MISSING CONTEXT, based on our research, because without additional information it could be misleading. Police officers rarely are prosecuted in fatal shootings. Police fatally shoot about 1,000 people a year, but most of those are ruled to be justified. Since 2015, police were arrested for murder or manslaughter in a little more than 1% of fatal shootings, data from The Washington Post and Stinson show. Buzzfeed News and The Trace found the solve rate for gun murders for the general population was about 46% in 2017.

Our fact check sources:

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Police rarely prosecuted for on-duty shootings

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