Volatile, racially sensitive issues of whether to charge police officers for fatal on-duty shootings, and whether jurors will convict an officer in such a case, hang over two of Ohio’s largest cities, the Associated Press reports. A judge is expected in February to set a trial date for a former University of Cincinnati police officer charged with murder in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black motorist after a traffic stop. Meanwhile, a Cuyahoga County grand jury has been hearing testimony about potential charges in the Cleveland police killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy who had a pellet gun. The cases come during heightened scrutiny of police treatment of blacks, after a string of police-inflicted deaths from Ferguson, Mo., to Chicago led to sometimes-violent protests.
They also come after a year in which the number of U.S. police officers charged in on-duty shootings was triple the average, says Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green State University criminologist who tracks charges against police. A Chicago police officer charged last month with murder in a fatal shooting was at least the 15th such case this year, compared with an average of fewer than five a year. Law prof. Michael Benza of Case Western Reserve University said that accompanying the increased attention to such cases is an erosion of public faith in police credibility. “That’s the real problem,” he said. “The biggest argument that law enforcement uses, and which the law recognizes, is that officers have to make these decisions instantaneously in many of these cases,” Benza said. “Usually it’s in this high-tension, high-adrenalin moment … ‘Do I shoot or do I not?’ It’s easy afterward to sit down and calmly look at the video and come to the decision. The officer doesn’t have that luxury.”