Philando Castile was not murdered, because white police officers don’t murder black men. If that statement upsets you, allow me to cheer you up with a joke: What’s rarer than getting struck by lightning, being killed by a terrorist or winning the lottery?
Well, in the past 10 years, 123 people or groups have hit the Powerball jackpot. The Weather Channel estimates that on average, 49 people are struck by lightning every year. In the past 10 years, terrorists (including people committing hate crimes) have murdered about 18 people per year, according to FBI statistics.
But since June 2007, out of approximately 10,000 police shootings, only five white police officers have been imprisoned for killing someone black.
While there is no definitive resource that catalogs police killings by race, The Root looked at data from the Washington Post, Fatal Encounters, The Guardian and the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project from 2007 to 2017 and found only three cases of a white police officer serving time for killing an African American (in one case, three officers were charged with killing a 92-year-old grandmother).
Why does this happen? Instead of using psychological conjecture, legal hypotheses or emotional reasoning, we decided to use data and statistical analysis to examine why white police officers rarely serve time for taking a black life.
How Rare Is It?
Is it really so rare that white police officers serve time for killing black men* and women? According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 70 percent of people charged with some form of killing (including murder, manslaughter, homicide, etc.) in America are eventually convicted. That is what researchers call the “homicide conviction rate.”
But when it comes to police, that rate drops precipitously. Bowling Green State University’s Police Integrity Lost project shows that only 29 officers have been convicted for killing on duty since 2005, mostly on lesser charges. Police are 33 percent less likely than a regular citizen to be convicted of a crime, and the conviction rate for cops charged with some form of murder is 35 percent—half that of the normal population. In fact, in the last 13 years, only one officer has been convicted of intentional murder. And in the rare case in which a cop is convicted, the officer hardly ever does time for killing a black man.
Between 2005 and 2017, 33 of the 49 people killed by indicted cops were black, but only five officers were convicted, making the homicide conviction rate for black victims a mere 12 percent.
Michael Brelo is a perfect example. After a 2012 car chase, Brelo and other Cleveland police officers fired 137 bullets at Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. Brelo shot 49 of those bullets, meaning that he took the time to reload. Twice. When he fired the last 15 rounds, Brelo was standing on top of the car, where he could probably see that the couple was unarmed and likely already dead.
Brelo was found not guilty on all charges.
The Playing Field Is Tilted
Part of the reason for the discrepancy in convictions of police officers is that the justice system is tilted toward them. If the conviction rate for officers charged with homicide seems low, the statistics on how few officers are charged is startling. Most cops never even face charges for shooting black victims. Even though 1,146 lives were ended by police in 2015, not one cop was convicted for an on-duty killing that year.
Prosecutors have to work with police departments every day, so many are reluctant to bring charges against the officers who work with them to convict criminals. Even when prosecutors charge the cops, the grand jury process ensures that many officers will never face trial. In most states, when evidence is presented in front of a grand jury, the victim is represented by the state. While this seems legitimate in most criminal cases, in the cases of police shootings, the prosecutors trying to indict the police officers are essentially teammates of the accused.
It’s why Darren Wilson never faced a trial for shooting an unarmed 18-year old named Mike Brown after St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch (whose father was a police officer) sent the case to a grand jury instead of arresting him. It explains why Richmond County District Attorney Dan Donovan refused to release the details of the case after a Staten Island, N.Y., grand jury refused to indict Daniel Pantaleo for squeezing the life out of Eric Garner with an illegal choke hold. It’s the reason the cop who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland two seconds after exiting the patrol car never stood in front of a judge or jury. It’s why the men who shot John Crawford for holding a BB gun in a Beavercreek, Ohio, Walmart never faced trial.
In 2015, of the 235 unarmed people killed by law-enforcement officers, only 18 deaths resulted in officers being charged. Another 169 unarmed civilians were killed in 2016, according to The Guardian, but only 16 officers even faced charges. In the last 10 years, only 82 cops have ever faced charges for killing anyone, meaning that more than 99 percent of cops who have caused the death of a civilian were never charged with a crime.
White People Are Biased
Even when a cop is charged with a crime, juries and judges rarely convict them. Since 2015, no judge has convicted a police officer in a bench trial (a trial without a jury), and only 15 of the 82 cases since 2005 have resulted in a conviction by a jury.
It’s probably because white people find black men scary, so they are more likely to believe the “feared-for-my-life defense.” That’s not a statement of opinion. A 2017 study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that white people perceived black men as more muscular, heavier, taller, stronger and more dangerous than white men the same size and weight.
A September 2016 Pew Research poll showed that 81 percent of whites have confidence in their local police. Seventy-five percent of whites believe police officers always use the appropriate amount of force, and 75 percent of white people think that cops treat all ethnicities equally. A scant 25 percent of whites disagree with the statement that “all blacks get a fair trial,” according to the Washington Post.
Even when they are aware that cops stop blacks more often than whites, only 17 percent of white people think it’s a problem. A 2015 Associated Press-University of Chicago poll found that a majority of white people believed that the criminal-justice system treated cops too harshly but treated blacks fairly.
These are the people who serve on juries. These are the judges, lawyers and prosecutors. They believe that black people are big and scary. They trust the police. They have faith in the justice system. They don’t think cops are biased. They live under the precept that the world is fair, cops are pure of heart and no one cares about the color of your skin.
They are the ones who make up a justice system that believes Tulsa, Okla., Officer Betty Shelby was afraid of big, black Terence Crutcher even though he was walking away with his hands up. They understand 6-foot-4-inch Darren Wilson when he said that 6-foot-5-inch Mike Brown was like “the Hulk.” They sympathize with the officers who shot the menacing John Crawford strolling down the aisle in Walmart. They would’ve choked Eric Garner, too. They would’ve wrestled the belligerent Sandra Bland to the ground in Texas, too.
They Don’t Serve Time
So let’s say that lightning strikes on the day you win the lottery as you land a unicorn onto the back of the Loch Ness Monster, and a cop is charged, tried and convicted of a crime. Before you jump up and down, you should know one fact:
He or she probably won’t do jail time.
The average sentence served by someone convicted of killing another human being is 81 months, which doesn’t seem like a long time for taking someone’s life. For police, that number drops down to an average of 48 months. It is impossible to calculate when the victim is black because in the last 13 years, here is the list of white men who have served prison time for killing an African American:
- Joshua Colclough: Colclough received four years in prison for shooting Wendell Allen in the chest in New Orleans.
- Gregg Gunnier, Arthur Tesser and Jason Smith: These two cops burst into the Atlanta home of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnson, shot her dead and received five- to 10-year sentences.
- Johannes Mehserle: Shot Oscar Grant in the back of the head while he was handcuffed and on the ground at a BART train station in Oakland, Calif. He received two years in jail.
- Robert Bates: Though he technically wasn’t an actual police officer, this millionaire reserve deputy with the Tulsa Sheriff’s Office who was playing cops and robbers joined in a chase of a bank-robbery suspect and “inadvertently” shot Robert Bates in the head. He will serve four years.
- Michael Slager: While technically convicted for civil rights violations after shooting Walter Scott in the back in North Charleston, S.C., while he was running away, Slager has yet to be sentenced.
That’s it. That’s the list.
And that is why Philando Castile wasn’t murdered. Because “murder” is a legal term with a specific legal definition. One must be convicted of the charge before you can refer to the crime as a murder.
Of the 10,000-plus police killings since 2005, only 82 cops were charged with crimes. So despite the fact that 90 percent of the people killed by police are unarmed; even though police kill blacks at 2.5 times the rate of whites; regardless of the fact that blacks are 13 percent of the population but 27 percent of the people killed by cops; even though less than one-half of one-tenth of 1 percent of cops who take the lives of black people are ever convicted ...
In the past 13 years, not a single law-enforcement officer has been convicted of intentionally murdering a black man. Therefore—by definition—cops are not murderers.
OK, just to remove that salty look from your face, here’s another hilarious joke: What does America call this?
“The justice system.”
* You may have noticed the recurring use of the term “black men.” We meant to do that. After reviewing thousands of cases—including the deaths of Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Tarika Wilson and Korryn Gaines—The Root could only find one case in the past 13 years in which a law-enforcement officer served time for killing a black woman.