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The availability of video evidence has contributed to a sharp rise in manslaughter and murder charges against cops involved in shootings this year, according to a criminologist. In 2015, 15 officers were charged, while from 2005 to 2014 the total was 47.
“If you take the cases with the video away, you are left with what we would expect to see over the past 10 years –about five cases”, Philip Stinson, the criminologist at Bowling Green State University who provided the statistics, told the Associated Press. “You have to wonder if there would have been charges if there wasn’t video evidence”.
Ten of the 15 cases of murder or manslaughter brought against police this year include video evidence. The most recent case is that of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald with 16 shots in October of 2014. McDonald had a small knife and PCP in his system, but the initial, official police account that had him lunging at Van Dyke was debunked by a dashboard cam video released earlier this month. “This had all the trappings of a life-threatening situation for a law-enforcement officer –PCP-laced juvenile who had been wreaking havoc on cars with a knife”, Joseph Tacopina, a renowned New York lawyer who has defended police in court, told AP. “Except you have the video that shows a straight-out execution”. Without that video, Stinson told AP, charges against Van Dyke would “never, ever” have been brought.
Another case of a video leading to a murder charge on a police officer was that of University of Cincinnati officer Ray Tensing, who stopped Samuel DuBose for lack of a front license plate. DuBose was attempting to drive off when Tensing shot him at near point blank range. Tensing’s claim that he feared being run over was unsubstantiated by his body camera footage.
“For forever, police have owned the narrative of what happened between any encounter between a police officer and a civilian”, David A. Harris, a law professor at University of Pittsburgh, told AP. “What video does is it takes that power of the narrative away from the police to some extent. And that shift in power of control over the narrative is incredibly significant”. “If not for the recording, I have no doubt that the officer in the Walter Scott case would be out on patrol today”, Harris said, referring to the case of Michael Slager, a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, who fatally shot Walter Scott in the back and then appeared to plant evidence on his body to claim self-defense. An inconspicuous bystander’s cell phone recording thwarted that plan.
Stinson found that about 1000 fatal shootings by police took place between 2005 and the end of 2014. He also noted that just less than half of the 47 officers charged with manslaughter or murder during that time were convicted. Stinson is currently leading an investigation funded by the National Institute of Justice at the Department of Justice, entitled Police Integrity Lost : A Study of Law Enforcement Officers Arrested.