It’s rare for a law enforcement officer to be convicted of homicide for shooting someone while on duty, NPR reports. A new NPR data analysis finds 2,400 people have been killed this way in the last two and a half years. The vast majority of those cases were found to be justified. About 20 officers faced charges. Of those, six have been convicted. In these cases, the key question is when does an officer’s fear justify a shooting? Jeff Noble, a retired officer and an expert witness on police use of force, says juries tend to sympathize with cops. “Police officers are under incredible stress,” he says. “What’s in the jury’s mind, is that, well, these are the people who are coming to help me.”
That sympathy often is buttressed by jury instructions. Those instructions usually refer to the 1989 Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Connor, which says that you can’t judge a cop with 20-20 hindsight. In a Minnesota police shooting case in which an officer recently was cleared, jurors were told that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions, and that those decisions should be evaluated based only on what the cop knew at that moment. “It’s very clear that under the current legal standard it’s almost impossible to actually convict somebody,” says the NAACP’s Ngozi Ndulue. She says jury instructions can end up excusing unacceptable fears. The Minnesota officer had convinced himself that the man he shot, Philando Castile, resembled a black robbery suspect.