Do Minnesota cases show it’s getting easier to convict cops?
Minneapolis – First, it was Mohamed Noor – convicted of murder for shooting an unarmed woman who approached his police SUV. Then it was Derek Chauvin, found guilty of murder for using his knee to pin George Floyd to a Minneapolis street as he gasped for air. Last month, it was Kim Potter, guilty of manslaughter for shooting a young Black man after a traffic stop.
Three recent convictions of police officers, all in the Minneapolis area, raise the question: Has there been a shift in jurors’ historic unwillingness to convict cops in on-duty killings?
As three more officers face federal trial this week in Floyd’s death, the answer is: Maybe.
Legal experts say each case is different, and the quality of evidence – especially video evidence – is key. But some say a robust protest movement in some cities, like Minneapolis, may be raising awareness, which could lead to a jury pool that’s more open to questioning officers’ actions, and prosecutors who may be more willing to charge – and succeed in getting convictions.
“There was traditionally this aura of invincibility that men and women in blue had when they were doing their jobs,” Alan Tuerkheimer, a Chicago-based jury consultant, said. “Jurors are living in a world now where police officers are held accountable.”
But a professor who tracks prosecutions involving fatal on-duty police shootings in the United States says it’s still rare for officers to be charged at all. Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University, said his data has remained fairly static.
Since 2005, Stinson said, 152 nonfederal sworn law enforcement officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter in shootings in the U.S. Only 50 have been convicted, many on lesser charges. Criminal cases for 46 officers are pending.
“What we’re seeing are, the officers are convicted in cases where their conduct cannot be rationally explained,” Stinson said. “That’s what we’re seeing time and again. But we’re not seeing systemic changes as of yet.”
Jury selection starts Thursday in the federal trial for Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao, who joined Chauvin in arresting Floyd on May 25, 2020. The fired Minneapolis officers are charged with violating Floyd’s civil rights; Chauvin pleaded guilty in the federal case in December.
Floyd’s death isn’t reflected in Stinson’s data because it wasn’t a shooting. But Stinson said the case illustrates a change that may contribute to holding police officers accountable: Citizens are more willing to take action.
In Floyd’s death, teenager Darnella Frazier took out her cellphone and began recording, later posting to Facebook a video that became a linchpin for convicting Chauvin of murder. It’s also certain to be part of the federal case against the three other officers.
Michelle Phelps, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, said cities with a more vocal activist community are more likely to elect leaders who will push for police accountability, and prosecutors who are willing to pursue officers in court.
And an electorate that’s pushing for police reform could result in a jury pool that’s more likely to second-guess officers, Phelps said.
The Minneapolis area has long had an active protest movement, which gained momentum after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Local police killings of Jamar Clark in 2015 (in which no charges were filed) and Philando Castile in 2016 (in which the officer was acquitted) energized the movement further.
Then came Floyd’s death.
“I think that the fact that we have been taking to the streets and demonstrating and raising awareness consistently since 2014 has made a huge difference,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and founder of the Racial Justice Network.
Experts said the intense media coverage of the convictions in the Minneapolis area is unlikely to sway potential jurors on future cases. Tuerkheimer said it’s OK if potential jurors know about a case – jury selection is designed to weed out those who have formed extreme opinions based on what they’ve heard. The goal is to find jurors who can render a fair verdict based only on the evidence in court.
Tuerkheimer said prosecutors also need to give jurors a compelling reason to convict. He added that if a gun is present, as in the Castile killing, jurors remain hesitant to second-guess officers.
In all three of the recent Minnesota cases where officers were convicted, the victims were unarmed.
In Noor’s case, no video existed, but the facts weren’t in dispute. Noor, who is Somali American, shot and killed Justine Ruszczyk Damond in 2017 after she called 911 to report a possible sexual assault. Activists welcomed Noor’s conviction, though some wondered if it was because he is Black and his victim was white. His murder conviction was overturned, but he remains convicted of manslaughter.
In Potter’s case, the white former police officer said she mistook her gun for her Taser when she shot Duante Wright in suburban Minneapolis. Her body camera recorded the shooting.
It happened as Chauvin was on trial. His case had plenty of video – from bystanders, officers’ body cameras and surveillance cameras. Numerous officers testified against him, which legal experts said marked a shift.
After Chauvin’s conviction, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office handled that case, wrote an article for the Georgetown Law Journal Annual Review of Criminal Procedure, pondering whether the U.S. had reached an “inflection point” when it comes to killings by police.
Ellison’s answer: “It depends.”
The immediate and global reaction to Floyd’s death was unlike any the country has seen since the 1992 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles officers, he said in the article, published in September. He called it “a historic moment that had to be met.”
Ellison wrote that real change in holding officers accountable depends on future action from prosecutors, lawmakers, police and the community. He said prosecutions must be vigorous, visible and swift.
“We cannot rely on one singular, though in many ways exceptional case, to carry the whole burden,” Ellison wrote.
In the Potter case, prosecutor Pete Orput faced intense pressure from protesters, including Levy Armstrong, to charge the officer with murder. He resisted and ultimately gave the case back to Hennepin County, before it ended up in Ellison’s hands.
Orput, who will retire at the end of this year, said what’s changed is the “ubiquity of cellphone cameras,” noting that prosecutors and jurors no longer have to rely on just an officer’s word.
“It’s not that we had a sea change of sensitivity toward holding cops accountable,” Orput said. “I think what we have now is pretty good evidence being presented.”
Phelps said it’s hard to pinpoint whether Minnesota, or the U.S., is experiencing lasting change. But she said it’s clear that citizens and government leaders are more attuned to potential misconduct by police – and are getting the message that officers aren’t above the law.
Levy Armstrong credits consistent activism: “Some police officers might think twice about pulling the trigger or committing acts of violence now – knowing they might be held accountable by a jury of their peers.”