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Q&A: Criminologist on police use of force and how to move forward with policing

Dr. Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, talked with KING 5 about police using deadly force.

SEATTLE — A Kentucky grand jury recently decided the Louisville police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, in her own home during a no-knock drug raid would not face criminal charges in connection with her death. 

It has begged the question, how often do police officers face charges and get convicted for using deadly force? 

Dr. Philip Stinson holds a PhD. in criminology and is a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He studies crime that has been committed by members of law enforcement, and has tracked cases of police use of force since 2005. 

"We now know that about 1,000 times each year, on-duty police officers shoot and kill someone. And yet only a handful of times each year, an average of about eight times a year an officer is charged with murder or manslaughter resulting from one of those on-duty shootings," said Stinson. "Since 2005, just 121 officers across the country have been charged with murder or manslaughter resulting from an on-duty shooting. We’ve only seen seven officers actually convicted of murder during that time period."

Stinson sat down with KING 5's Christin Ayers to talk about police use of force, how officers need to be held accountable, and systemic changes that need to happen to improve policing.

WATCH: Full episodes of Facing Race

The following is a partial transcript of their conversation. Some of the questions and answers below have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Christin Ayers: So, seven officers convicted in on-duty shootings in that time period. Is that enough relative to the numbers you’ve collected?

Philip Stinson: It’s a really difficult thing. We have more than 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies across the country. All policing is local and yet it’s the same general standard in most jurisdictions across the country that applies in terms of when a police officer is legally authorized to use deadly force. In most of the situations where officers are involved in on duty shootings that are fatal, the officer is ultimately found to be legally justified, in other words, they’re not charged with any crime. So it’s a rare event that officers are charged. So, it’s really difficult to answer your question, because the facts of each case are different and it’s not something that you can sort of just paint with such a broad brush.

Ayers: Are there cases where an officer-involved shooting or killing is necessary to protect people or protect the officer?

Stinson: The word you used there, “necessary," that’s one of the problems here with the current legal standard. It doesn’t have to be necessary that the officer used deadly force there in order for it to be justified.

An officer is justified in using deadly force if the officer has a “reasonable apprehension of an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death being imposed against the officer or someone else.” And the Supreme Court has clarified back in 1989 that that is a standard of objective reasonableness, in other words, what a reasonable police officer would have perceived without the benefit of hindsight. In many of these cases, the surviving family members of the victim end up being told by prosecutors, by police chiefs, that they made a finding that an officer was legally justified in using deadly force in killing their loved ones and at the same time, sometimes they tell the victim’s family, although it was legally justified, we also found that it was unnecessary and that it was inappropriate and that it violated agency policy and that happens time and again and that’s a very different thing to explain to a victim’s family or to explain to the public at large because frankly it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that’s where we are. That’s what the legal standard provides for.

Ayers: Is our legal system set up to hold officers accountable when you have a standard like that?

Stinson: It’s an impossible thing. I can’t think of a perfect standard that we could put in its place that would be anymore workable. Many police officers have a fear of Black people and that’s the core problem here. I’m not saying that all police officers are racist, but you know many police officers don’t live and work in the same communities. Their children don’t go to the same schools as the kids in the communities where they work each day as a police officer. They don’t worship in the same places because they live in different communities. And they’re sent out each day to work as police officers, as warriors, basically. We dress them in quasi-military uniforms. They work for quasi-military organizations, and we send them out to fight a war on crime. Well, every warrior needs a potential enemy. And that’s real easy to make the citizens of the community where you work as a police officer a de-facto enemy when you really aren’t from or of or about and part of that community, you just work there. And as long as we have those core issues going on, this fear of Black people, this sense that you’re not living and working in the same place, that you’re not of that community, if we don’t deal with those core issues, I don’t know how we can resolve any of these systemic problems and the issue of systematic, institutional racism and many of the other issues that you just can’t ignore when we’re talking about police use of deadly force.

Ayers: There are a lot of police officers that feel that they are being unfairly targeted right now and are sort of under a microscope. Is it fair to be judging all officers by the standard that we see when we hear stories of Breonna Taylor or George Floyd?

Stinson: Probably not, but another way to look at this, is you know, most people weren’t paying very close attention to issues involving police brutality before six years ago. It’s really around the time that Michael Brown was killed by an officer, Darren Wilson in Ferguson in 2014, that people of all walks of life started paying closer attention. We now have capabilities with everyone of us having video recorders in our smart phones. Police officers often wear body worn cameras. They have dash cams. They’ve had that for many decades now. We’ve got surveillance and security videos.

I think the police are under a microscope and I’m not so sure that’s not a good thing. I think it is a good thing. I think frankly the body-worn cameras, the video recordings there, more often than not exonerate officers when there are citizen complaints if they are groundless or baseless. So it works both ways here. But yes, the police are under a microscope but we expect an awful lot of our police and we’re seeing things time and again that are problematic. If you look at the data with more than 1,000 people shot and killed by on duty police officers in this country, that’s an average of two, almost three a day. That’s really shocking to most people. In many respects, policing is broken. We shouldn’t have a society where so many people are killed on an annual basis by on-duty police officers.

Ayers: Can you talk to me about how we can balance this need for greater accountability for officers whose actions are rooted in racism versus allowing room for officers to react when shootings are justified, when someone is threatening to commit suicide by cop for example?

Stinson: These are difficult situations and police officers are really sent out to perform impossible tasks. We’ve over the years, more and more responsibilities have fallen on the police when we’ve defunded community mental health services and deinstitutionalization of the mental health system decades ago. Many things have fallen on police officers as first responders.

I don’t think there are any easy fixes. Certainly most police officers serve honorably, but we really need to rethink what is it we want police officers to do and what type of people do we want to be police officers? And those are two core issues. We’ve heard a lot of talk about defunding the police. I think really the core question is looking at the functions of the police and seeing are there other governmental and non-governmental agencies that can be performing any of these tasks?

Since all policing is local, we have more than 18,000 agencies across the country. There’s not an easy fix. It’s not one size fits all. It’s something that each community is really going to need to wrestle with and really come to terms with going forward because certainly we need systemic changes.

Ayers: How do we really know that an officer was using force to protect his or her own life versus if other factors were at play there? How do we make those determinations?

Stinson: It’s difficult. Investigators and prosecutors have to make those determinations on a regular basis when they’re considering these deadly force incidents. They have to apply to the facts of the case as best they can. One of the problems I see is that if you or I went out and shot and killed someone today, the responding investigators, the police chief, the prosecutors would all consider that from the get-go as a criminal matter, a criminal homicide case. They would treat the scene as a crime scene. They would make certain notifications in certain order. They would interview witnesses in a certain way. But when a police officer is involved in an on-duty shooting, it seems in many places, the responding investigators, the police chief, the police supervisors, prosecutors, they all start with a different set of assumptions. They seem to start with the assumption, this was an on-duty shooting. It was probably legally justified.

It makes it difficult for prosecutors to make determinations in these cases as to whether it’s appropriate to bring charges because oftentimes the physical evidence isn’t collected in the right way, there’s damage done to crime scenes. It’s just very, very difficult and they have to try to go back and fill in the gaps to make these decisions, so not an easy task.

Ayers: There was a Gallup poll that came out recently that said confidence in police has dropped below 50% for the first time since that poll began. Do you have any thoughts on hearing that morale is low amongst police officers because of this increased scrutiny?

Stinson: I hope it’s a wake-up call for law enforcement officers and for law enforcement agencies. It’s a huge problem. Many police departments and sheriffs offices across the country are having difficulty recruiting young people to want to work in those agencies as sworn officers. So it’s a huge problem. We’ve got to figure out ways to get back on track here. We’ve got to figure out ways so that the public does have trust.

Police legitimacy is a problem. Many people don’t trust the police. Many people are afraid to call the police. Many people try to do everything they can to stay away from having any encounters at all with police. We’ve got to figure out a way to get back on track, really policing for the 21st Century. We’ve got to figure out what is it we want our police officers to do and who is it we want to work as police officers. And those are two fundamental questions that frankly still have to be answered.

Ayers: What is your reaction to hearing the number of police officers who have been shot or threatened or injured in the past few months since the killing of George Floyd?

Stinson: That just cannot be tolerated. There has to be zero tolerance for violence against the police and people have to be prosecuted for that. I don’t think that’s a solution for anything and I would encourage people to get out and protest in non-violent ways if they think that’s appropriate and if it’s something that’s a core value of theirs and something they want to do, but we just can’t have violence against police.

Ayers: I want to know whether through your work researching on this topic if you’ve come across any solutions in other states that are working?

Stinson: No, not in terms of trying to reduce the incidence and prevalence of officers using their firearms. No, I really don’t know of anywhere where they’ve figured out a solution to this. I do think we need to rethink the firearms training that police recruits go through and that police officers go through at least on an annual basis and in service training and firearms service periodically.

Ayers: What would it take to restore public trust in law enforcement?

Stinson: A systemic change to policing. We’ve got to get away form the police use of firearms on such a regular basis. We’ve got to stop police brutality. We’ve got to stop the killing of people of color. It’s just a huge problem and people of all walks of life are now paying attention to this and I don’t think that we can get past this until we really figure out a way to change the core values of policing and the police subculture at all the agencies across the country.

This story was produced as part of “Facing Race,” a KING 5 series that examines racism, social justice and racial inequality in the Pacific Northwest. Tune in to KING 5 on Sundays at 9:30 p.m. to watch live and catch up on our coverage here.