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Convictions of law enforcement officers in police shootings: How often does it happen?

Researchers found that almost all cases are ruled to be justifiable uses of deadly force, while a small fraction of officers charged with murder are rarely convicted

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — The conviction of now-former DeKalb County police officer Robert Olsen on lesser felonies - but not murder - for killing an unarmed and unclothed Anthony Hill is not unusual.

Olsen’s sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 1, and whatever happens next in the case, one fact remains: convictions of law enforcement officers for killing someone in the line of duty are rare in this country.

The numbers are staggering.

Since 1980, according to the FBI, 85 officers have been murdered in the line of duty every year in the U.S. on average. That's in addition to dozens more who die every year for other reasons, such as accidents and suicide.

And since 2005, there have been more than 13,000 deadly police shootings in the U.S., according to studies by the Police Integrity Research Group at Bowling Green State University. This averages to nearly 1,000 cases a year of officers shooting and killing someone - or two to three a day.

“Most of the fatal police shootings across the country result in a finding that the officer was legally justified in using deadly force,” explained Criminal Justice Professor Philip Stinson, the director of the studies, in an interview with 11Alive on Monday after the Olsen verdict.

Dr. Stinson is one of the nation’s leading authorities on police crime and police integrity. 

Since 2005, his research shows that out of those 13,000 deadly police shootings, a tiny fraction - 106 officers - have been charged with murder or manslaughter.

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Even fewer - 33 of them - have been convicted, but not of murder. They were convicted of lesser charges, as Olsen was in DeKalb County on Monday.

Only four of them, so far, have been convicted of murder; there are 25 officers charged that are still awaiting trial.

Stinson said even when prosecutors present video evidence that they think proves the officer used excessive, deadly force, juries rarely convict the officer of murder.

“Juries are very reluctant to second-guess the split-second, life-or-death decisions of police officers in potentially violent street encounters," he said.

His research shows that officers in this country who are convicted of murder are sentenced to serve, on average, 12 and a half years in prison.

He's a breakdown of some of the data by the numbers:

RACE DATA FOR COMPLETED CASES 

Non-Black Officers:

  • 30 convicted (victims in these cases: 20 Black, 10 Non-Black)
  • 38 not convicted (victims in these cases: 21 Black, 17 Non-Black)

Black Officers:

  • 6 convicted (victims in these cases: 3 Black, 3 Non-Black)
  • 6 not convicted (All 6 victims were also Black)

STATS BY THE YEAR

Note: Numbers provided are from the date of the arrest, not the date of the actual shooting

Numbers of officers charged with murder or manslaughter resulting from an on-duty shooting:

  • 2005 = 1
  • 2006 = 7
  • 2007 = 10
  • 2008 = 4
  • 2009 = 3
  • 2010 = 5
  • 2011 = 1
  • 2012 = 5
  • 2013 = 4
  • 2014 = 7
  • 2015 = 18
  • 2016 = 14
  • 2017 = 7
  • 2018 = 10
  • 2019 = 10

(Total: 106)

Numbers of officers convicted of some crime:

  • 2005 = 0
  • 2006 = 5
  • 2007 = 5
  • 2008 = 0
  • 2009 = 2
  • 2010 = 3
  • 2011 = 0
  • 2012 = 3
  • 2013 = 2
  • 2014 = 2
  • 2015 = 8
  • 2016 = 3
  • 2017 = 1
  • 2018 = 2
  • 2019 = 0

(Total: 36)

Number of non-convictions: 

  • 2005 = 1
  • 2006 = 2
  • 2007 = 5
  • 2008 = 4
  • 2009 = 1
  • 2010 = 2
  • 2011 = 1
  • 2012 = 2
  • 2013 = 2
  • 2014 = 5
  • 2015 = 9
  • 2016 = 7
  • 2017 = 1
  • 2018 = 1
  • 2019 = 1

(Total: 44)

Numbers from Police Integrity Research Group at Bowling Green State University.

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