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More Police Officers Are Prosecuted, Few Are Convicted

Closing arguments are expected Tuesday in the trial of one current and one former Aurora, Colo., police officer in the 2019 death of 23-year-old massage therapist Elijah McClain. The officers pleaded not guilty to criminally negligent homicide, manslaughter and assault.


In Washington, jurors in the trial of three Tacoma Police Department officers are due to hear more testimony about the death of 33-year-old Manuel Ellis, who died in 2020 after telling officers he couldn't breathe during a struggle that was captured on camera. The officers face second-degree murder or first-degree manslaughter charges.


In Tennessee, five former Memphis police officers charged in the January beating and death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols are waiting to learn when they will stand trial in state court. The officers have pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and other charges.


The number of police officers charged with violent on-duty crimes, including murder, manslaughter and assault, has increased in part because of increased public scrutiny, new technology and legal changes that have helped make prosecutions possible. Still, such charges for police officers remain rare and convictions are rarer still, reports USA Today.


"There's a demand for criminal prosecution," said Kate Levine, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. "And so prosecutors are looking to charge police officers when they wouldn't have in the past, and/or because of police body cams or citizens taking videos, evidence comes up to contradict these claims, where it may not have in the past."


Police kill more than 1,000 people each year, according to databases created by the Washington Post and civil rights organization Campaign Zero.


Since 2005, 185 non-federal law enforcement officers have been arrested for murder or manslaughter as a result of an on-duty fatal shooting, says Philip Matthew Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.


The number of officers charged in on-duty fatal shootings has increased, from a low of 1 in 2011 to a high of 21 in 2021. The Post says that fatal police shootings increased from 995 in 2015 to a record high of 1,096 in 2022. The Mapping Police Violence database created by Campaign Zero found police killed a record high of 1,250 people last year, up from 1,099 in 2017.


"The number of officers charged in terms of a percentage has stayed flat, it's still under 2% of the cases...so from where I sit things have not changed," Stinson said.


Since 2005, 59 officers charged with murder or manslaughter in connection with an on-duty fatal shooting have been convicted of a crime, but only six were convicted of murder, Stinson says.

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