It took just three days after the April 11 killing of a young Black man by a white police officer in Minnesota for local prosecutors to announce charges in the case.
Former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter was charged on Wednesday with second-degree manslaughter in the shooting and killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop, Washington County Attorney Pete Orput announced. Potter's chief said Potter intended to use her Taser electroshock weapon but instead accidentally fired her gun.
"We will vigorously prosecute this case and intend to prove that Officer Potter abrogated her responsibility to protect the public when she used her firearm rather than her Taser," Imran Ali, a prosecutor in Orput's office, said in a statement.
While Wright's family is calling for murder charges against Potter, the alacrity with which Orput acted marks a shift from just a few years ago, when investigators would routinely spend months on a police shooting case only to decide against bringing charges.
"That doesn't usually happen anymore. People won't put up with it," said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who teaches about police behavior.
The killing coincided with the final days of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white former Minneapolis police officer charged with murder in the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after Chauvin pinned Floyd's neck with his knee for more than nine minutes.
Potter, a 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center Police Department, has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison. The fact that Potter was charged in the shooting just three days after the tragic incident "is a big, big change," Harris said, albeit "just not enough."
The 2014 shooting of Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year-old Black man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, coupled with Floyd's death, has helped spawn a nationwide protest movement against police brutality. In response, prosecutors have been much quicker to charge police officers for misconduct. Not only are they charging more officers but they're bringing cases more rapidly, Harris noted.
But relative to total police shootings in the country, the number of such prosecutions remains infinitesimal.
In 2020, American police killed 1,127 people, making the U.S. an outlier in fatal police shootings among Western democracies, according to a tally by Mapping Police Violence. Not a single police officer was convicted of murder or manslaughter last year. In Minnesota, prior to Floyd's death, only one police officer had been convicted of murder, for an on-duty shooting in 2017.
Police work is often dangerous and even deadly, and law enforcement advocates say a large majority of fatal police shootings involve officers killing armed criminals.
"Most of the police-involved shootings are lawful exercises of deadly force," said Cully Stimson, a former state and federal prosecutor and now the deputy director of the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations was not available to comment before publication of this article.
The recent outcry over deadly police shootings has stemmed from the killing of unarmed suspects, often African Americans killed by white police officers. While whites account for a little more than half of the victims of fatal police shootings, Blacks, who represent about 13% of the U.S. population, made up about 28% of those killed by police last year, according to Mapping Police Violence.
In recent years, public outcry over the racial disparity in killings by police has led local and state prosecutors to charge more police officers involved in fatal shootings.
Since the beginning of 2005, 140 police officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter in on-duty fatal shootings, resulting in 44 convictions, often for lesser offenses, according to a tally by Philip Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University. Only seven have been convicted of murder.
Prior to Brown's killing in Ferguson, an average of five police officers were charged with murder or manslaughter per year between 2005 and 2014, according to Stinson's data. But since 2015, the number has increased to about 13 per year.
What is more, since June 1 last year, shortly after Floyd's death, 25 police officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter, including former Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe in the killing of Rayshard Brooks, according to Stinson's tally. That is as many as 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 combined.
Still, Stinson says the increase is statistically insignificant.
"If you think about it, with the ubiquity of video recordings, we still are not seeing more officers charged in these cases, which is really fascinating to me," Stinson said.
And it's not for lack of trying by prosecutors, he said. In the United States, prosecution of a felony crime such as murder or manslaughter begins with a grand jury indictment. To obtain an indictment, prosecutors must first present the charges to a secret grand jury, typically made up of up to 23 citizens.
"From what I hear, at least anecdotally, the prosecutors who have reached out to me from across the country have expressed their difficulties in getting grand juries to return indictments," Stinson said.
There are several reasons grand juries refuse to indict officers involved in fatal shootings and prosecutors don't bring charges in the first place, according to legal experts.
A key factor is the 1989 United States Supreme Court decision in a case known as Graham v. Connor. The justices held that claims of excessive force against police must be evaluated from the perspective of an "objectively reasonable" police officer, according to legal experts.
"That standard favors the police because it tells jurors that they should look at the case through the eyes of a police officer, not with hindsight, and not only with their own experience but through the eyes of a police officer," Harris said.
Unlike in most other countries, the United States elects rather than appoints local prosecutors, making them less willing to bring cases that they know they can't win.
"They're going to hesitate," Harris said.
Another reason is that jurors, drawn from the general population, tend to be sympathetic to police officers. In keeping with the Supreme Court ruling, they're instructed to bear in mind that police shootings occur in dangerous, fast-developing situations.
"Juries are very reluctant to second-guess the split-second decisions of the police officers in potentially violent street encounters," Stinson said. "And we actually see the same result when judges are sitting as the trier of fact in bench trials where there are no juries."
But while juries continue to give police officers the benefit of the doubt, Harris said that there are indications that attitudes are changing over the past year.
"I wouldn't be surprised to look back three years from now and see that there were more convictions on a percentage basis than we have now," Harris said.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the NAPO did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with its executive director. The association did respond but was unable to make the director available.