The recent acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez in Minnesota and the second deadlocked jury for Ray Tensing in Cincinnati illustrate how difficult it is for prosecutors to get convictions of police officers involved in on-duty fatal shootings.
Police work is inherently dangerous. Officers are trained in use of force–that is, when they are justified in using it and how much they can use. The force they are permitted to use escalates with their reasonable perception of the threat against them. For example, they don’t have to see a gun in order to be justified in shooting someone; they need to perceive what they believe to be furtive movements toward a possible gun.
In the case of Philando Castile, the victim in Minnesota who was shot last year after telling Officer Yanez that he had a gun (which he was licensed to carry), he was reaching for his identification when the officer fired several times. Yanez convinced 12 jurors that he was reasonable in believing Castile was reaching for his gun–after Yanez ordered him not to. Now that the entire dash cam video from the patrol car has been released, the public conversation has turned to: How could Yanez panic and fire so many times when Castile was polite and advised Yanez that he had a gun? Not having seen the trial that included Yanez’s testimony, the same video we all now see, and more, I can’t answer that question. Prosecutors had charged Yanez with a low level of homicide–second degree manslaughter–which is criminally negligent homicide.
In Cincinnati, Ray Tensing’s second trial just ended in a deadlock–the same result as his first trial last fall. Ohio prosecutors have charged Tensing with murder and manslaughter for the 2015 shooting of Samuel DuBose during a traffic stop. Tensing fired into DuBose’s head after DuBose started his car. Tensing claims his arm was caught and he thought he would be dragged with the car once DuBose drove away. That claim was challenged at trial. Jurors say they were split, almost down the middle. It’s unclear, as I write this, whether Tensing will be tried a third time and, if so, on what charges. During Tensing’s trial, prosecutors wanted to add a lower charge of homicide–a reckless homicide–but the judge said it was too late.
Last month in Bronx, New York, a sergeant was indicted for second degree murder for fatally shooting an emotionally disturbed woman who was wielding a bat in close proximity to the sergeant, Hugh Barry. The NYPD union was quick to point out that the NYPD training in use of force includes a scenario where a person is threatening an officer with a bat. Their training is that deadly force can be used against a person with a bat. I’m befuddled how the Bronx DA can charge an officer with murder for following his training. Obviously I don’t know everything the DA knows but I will closely follow this case on my home turf.
The Washington Post has been tracking officer-involved fatalities across the country since 2015. Check it out for some interesting statistics. The vast majority of killings by police officers are justified; only a small fraction result in criminal charges against officers.
What do you think?