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Police prosecutions for murder and manslaughter are on the rise. Researchers attribute this to increased public protest over use of excessive force by officers rather than a rise in civilian deaths, Reuters reports.
This year, 16 officers were charged with murder or manslaughter as compared to an average of five per year in the previous ten years. But it is too soon to say whether the increase represents a substantive change or a statistical fluke, according to researchers.
US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has promised that the Department of Justice will track police prosecutions more closely from now on. Similarly, several states have started databases tracking deaths at the hands of police in their territories. Up until this point, there has been no serious effort made by authorities to compile meaningful statistics on cops charged with murder for excessive force.
Researchers say that the interest today is due to outrage over highly publicized shootings. The 2014 death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, drew national attention to police brutality. A jury declined to indict the officer who shot Brown and the Justice Department cleared him of all civilian wrongdoing.
Ezekiel Edwards, director of the criminal law reform project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told Reuters that lawmakers can no longer ignore questionable police shootings. "It's not that there has been this massive uptick in civilian deaths. It's just that there has been this massive uptick in scrutiny and protests," he said.
As the public has become more aware, demand for justice for deaths at the hands of police has risen. But the 16 officers charged this year for murder and manslaughter represent only a small fraction of fatal police shootings in 2015. A Washington Post database tracks that number at 809 as of today.
Prosecution and conviction rates for cops are understandably low. Juries tend to believe police officers who say they acted because they were in danger. With more public scrutiny, however, and evidence of excessive force increasingly recorded on bystander cell phones, the instinct to not second guess police officers may be waning.
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