The Kentucky grand jury’s decision not to charge a police officer for the killing of Breonna Taylor prompted nationwide outrage. The decision actually was, typical: In the U.S., police almost never face serious criminal charges for an on-duty shooting or killing. Since 2005, 126 police officers have been arrested for murder or manslaughter due to an on-duty shooting, says Prof. Philip Matthew Stinson of Bowling Green State University. That amounts to fewer than eight prosecutions a year. About 1,000 fatal police shootings are reported each year, so the arrest rate is never higher than two percent. It’s a figure that’s hard to believe. The number of police officers prosecuted “seems extremely low to me,” Stinson says. “In my opinion, it’s got to be that more of the fatal shootings are unjustified.”
Of those 126 officers, just 44 were convicted (with 31 cases pending). Many of those convictions came on lesser charges: Just seven officers have been convicted of murder in police shootings since 2005, with their prison sentences ranging from 81 months to life. The remaining 37 were convicted on charges ranging from manslaughter to official misconduct, sometimes serving no prison time. After the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, as the Black Lives Matter movement grew more prominent, there was an uptick in prosecutions: From 2005 to 2014, about five police officers were prosecuted a year. Starting with 2015, the average is up to roughly 13 a year. Many factors contribute to the low rates of charges and convictions. Cops actively protect each other, making it more difficult to investigate a fatal police shooting as an illegal act. Prosecutors face conflicts of interest, as they risk aggravating police departments they work closely with by pursuing charges. The public is skeptical of second-guessing police in tense situations. The law gives police wide latitude to use force.