Recently, on November 16th, Jeronimo Yanez was charged with second-degree manslaughter after fatally shooting Philando Castile. What made this conviction so surprising is that Yanez was a police officer and Castile was a civilian.
Police officers rarely, if ever, are successfully prosecuted for manslaughter or murder. In fact, in 2015 the Washington Post collected data that showed 991 people were killed that year by police, yet barely any of those officers were charged with manslaughter. Why is this the case? What can be done to change it?
One major roadblock to prosecuting police is the fact that many states, including Illinois, have a police bill of rights. These laws make it very hard to question, gather evidence, and formally charge any officer involved in a shooting. The laws often call for prosecutors to prove that the officer acted with “malice” or “evil intent” and that can be very hard to argue in a court of law.
Because of this, many protesters and advocacy groups are pushing for reform through the use of tools such as body cameras. But body cameras aren’t a cure-all. Legal experts say that prosecuting a police officer is difficult because the majority of the public see officers as individuals who put themselves in danger to do their job, and in turn, focus on the officer’s fear of getting shot.
Body cameras make this a bigger problem because they don’t necessarily show the whole story when it comes to fatal and non-fatal interactions. Again, the public’s perception of an officer’s fear can skew the body camera footage during prosecution. They might see the footage one way if they believe the officer is innocent and in a totally different way if they believe he is guilty.
Legal experts believe that lasting change will come through rigorous police training as well as policy reform. Instead of waiting for another police shooting to happen, we need to stop the incident from ever occurring. This means training officers how to deal with people that have severe mental health problems as well as learning how to de-escalate a tense situation. It also means other officers on the force need to hold each other accountable for their actions and report on any incidents of unethical behavior. It won’t happen overnight, but if we are vigilant we can put an end to police shootings and misconduct.