TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – As former police officer Derek Chauvin walked out of a courtroom in handcuffs after a guilty verdict was handed down, a Criminology Professor and police crime researcher noted how rare it is for officers to get convicted of murder after on-duty deadly incidents.
According to Philip Stinson, a criminology professor at Bowling Green State University, the on-duty deadly incidents aren’t what’s rare. It’s the punishment, or lack thereof, that law enforcement officers may or may not face.
Per Stinson, the research that points to the rarity doesn’t come from data provided by the Department of Justice. The DOJ does have databases tracking all sorts of statistics and crimes across the country. However, there’s no database tracking crimes committed by on-duty law enforcement officers.
“It’s frankly somewhat troubling, bizarre and amazing that my research and our research here at Bowling Green State University is the only place to get that data,” Stinson said. “The Justice Department still can’t answer these questions and you have to wonder – is that because they don’t really want to know the answers.”
Stinson is a criminology professor at Bowling Green State University. Through news reports and court records, Stinson and his team at the Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database collect and track crimes committed by law enforcement officers. He has been tracking on-duty use of force crimes, police brutality, corruption, manslaughter and murder cases since 2005.
“It all started as a project while I was getting my master’s degree in 2004,” Stinson said. “From 2005 to 2007 I analyzed over 2,100 cases of officers arrested and it has just grown since then and now we are federally funded.”
Per his research, 140 non-federal sworn law enforcement officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter as a result of an on-duty shooting since 2005. Of those, 44 of those officers were convicted – 19 by a guilty plea, 25 by a jury trial and none were convicted by a bench trial.
In the cases where an officer was convicted, it has often been for a lesser offense. Only seven officers have been convicted of murder. There were also four officers whose murder convictions were overturned, but the officers were later convicted of federal crimes arising out of the same incident. That’s only 3%. The seven officers convicted of murder received incarceration sentences that ranged from 81 months to life in prison, with an average-length prison sentence of 197.6 months.
“More than 1,000 times each year on duty, police officers kill someone and 95% of those incidents are the result of an on-duty shooting and in almost all of those cases the officers are eventually cleared,” Stinson said.
Stinson says a number of factors contribute to that; the laws that protect an officer’s right to use force, conflicts of interest with prosecutors, the backing of police unions and even how departments investigate these crimes.
“If you or I were to go out and shoot and kill someone today, the responding officers – they’d all make a certain set of assumptions,” he said. “They’d start with the assumption that it was a criminal homicide, that it was a crime scene, they would preserve the crime scene, they would canvas the neighborhood for statements. However, when it’s a police officer whose involved in a fatal shooting, it seems the responding officers, investigators start with a different set of assumptions. They assume the officer was the victim.”
Based off of his research, he says things often change when video evidence is involved because it can often times counter what was written in the original police report.
“We often see that those narratives are factually inconsistent with the video evidence and in so many of these cases where the officers are cleared, the police own the narratives; the bystander accounts are not taken seriously especially if they are people of color,” he said.
It’s a similar situation of what happened in the George Floyd case. The original Minneapolis Police Department news release on Floyd’s death was titled “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” It claimed that Floyd had resisted arrest and then suffered “medical distress” after being cuffed. The narrative did not say the the distress came about while Chauvin’s knee was pressed on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.
Stinson believes the video showing Chauvin murdering Floyd is why he got convicted.
8 On Your Side reached out to the DOJ to see why they do not track crimes committed by police, but never heard back.