In some ways, 2020 has appeared to mark a turning point in the United States’ long ongoing racial justice movement. This year’s Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police helped galvanize a nationwide reckoning on race that brought greater attention to other police killings, provoked millions of Americans to protest in their streets, and pushed the concept of defunding the police to the forefront.
But while those are substantial developments, the math of police killings remains essentially the same. As a recent post from Vox points out, the arrest rate for cops who kill people on-duty remains as low as ever—hovering between 1 percent and 2 percent.
The story pulls from data that Philip Matthew Stinson, a criminal justice expert at Bowling Green State University has been tracking for years. Since 2005, only 126 police officers have been arrested for murder or manslaughter when they’ve killed someone on the job. Actual prosecutions are even lower—just eight a year.
That framework is important to consider when reflecting on the cases of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, whose killing during a botched drug raid conducted by Louisville police similarly enraged people nationwide. No one was charged in connection to Taylor’s death; of the three officers involved in the raid, only former Sgt. Brett Hankison is facing criminal charges, for shooting recklessly outside of Taylor’s apartment. As Vox notes, despite the international attention Taylor’s killing drew, the resolution (or lack thereof) to her case is actually more consistent with the vast majority of fatal police brutality cases.
Meanwhile, Floyd’s case is still a rare exception. Not only was former officer Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, charged in the 46-year-old Black man’s death, but so were three additional officers who chose not to intervene while Floyd was begging for help.
Despite the novel coronavirus pandemic, which forced many to shelter-in-place for weeks this year (and prompted many counties to decrease their jail populations), and increased attention to police violence, American cops have also continued to kill people at a similar rate to years prior.
Vox points to a number of reasons why police don’t often get prosecuted. Cops who witness fatal police shootings are more likely to consider those killings justified and may resist treating those incidents as crimes. This means refusing to gather evidence, give testimony, or provide false witness accounts in order to protect their colleagues. Prosecutors may also be reluctant to bring charges against police departments, with whom they work closely. They may also, like Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, believe the shooting is justified. This is in part because current laws provide a wide berth for officers to use force if they perceive a threat—an inexact and highly subjective standard, and one that is often tinged with bias.
The debate about how, exactly, to reform American policing is unlikely to change in the new year, especially with a high-profile George Floyd trial right around the corner. But when considering how to solve the issue of police brutality, it’s worth returning to these numbers, and this context. There has never been more attention placed on cops. There have never been more body cameras and cell phones tracking the decisions they make on the job. But despite waves of reform in the past 15 years, in that same period, only seven cops have been convicted of murder.
That is the justice system we have.