Less than four years later, former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor sits in jail after a jury convicted him of murder for shooting and killing of Justine Damond, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin stands on trial on murder charges for the death of George Floyd, and former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter has been charged with manslaughter for shooting and killing Daunte Wright as Chauvin’s trial was underway.
Have we entered a new era, one in which police are charged criminally when they kill people under questionable — or worse — circumstances? Has the old narrative of administrative leave and possibly internal discipline or termination — but nothing more — been put to rest?
Some longtime participants and observers of the criminal justice system say yes, that standards, both from the public and within the law enforcement community, have changed, and the decades-long hesitation to bring charges against on-duty police officers dealing with suspects is rightly over.
But others say no, that the numbers don’t actually show clear trends, and that officers are being held accountable in criminal court in only the most egregious cases.
And then, of course, there is the question of race — race of the officers and those who are killed — and how that factors into both reality and perceptions.
Everyone agrees that one thing is definitely different now from a decade ago: video. It’s everywhere, from high-definition surveillance cameras, to multi-angle footage from bystanders’ smartphones, to dashboard cameras that record the moment a cruiser’s lights are activated, to body cameras that provide such an up-close angle that often the view is obscured in a scuffle — but which also provide crucial audio.
‘The ground shifted’
In Minnesota, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi broke the barrier when he decided to charge Yanez with second-degree manslaughter and two felony-level counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm.
In his trial, Yanez argued self-defense, testifying that he believed Castile, whom he had pulled over for a traffic violation in Falcon Heights, was reaching for a gun. Castile did legally have a handgun — and had just informed Yanez of that — but it appears to have remained in his pocket. His last words were, “I wasn’t reaching for it.”
A jury found Yanez not guilty, but Choi stands by his decision.
“At the end of the day, that was the right thing to do,” Choi said in an interview last week. “We were not able to bring justice in the trial, but I have to respect the jury’s decision.”
Choi, who took office in 2006, nearly two years after 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr., who was Black, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. When a grand jury opted not to indict the officer, it sparked widespread protest and gave momentum to the growing Black Lives Matter movement that Choi says influenced where we find ourselves today.
“I think that in many ways in this country, ever since Ferguson, the ground has been shifting,” Choi said. “It’s affected our foundation, everything we do as prosecutors and what police do — everyone who is supposed to enforce the law. The ground can only shift when there’s greater awareness and engagement by the public, and I think Ferguson caused many prosecutors across America to really question the role of the prosecutor’s function.”
Choi emphasized that it’s not just pressure from the Black community, but white residents as well.
“I’ve had so many conversations with people across the board,” he said. “They don’t like this at all. And they’re demanding accountability. It’s grown to the point where there’s a countervailing side, and hard lines are being drawn. That shows how much it’s changed.”
When Floyd was killed in May, Choi said he had little doubt Chauvin would be charged. He said the change in attitude was the backdrop, but the video footage sealed it.
“The quality of evidence that’s being presented to the prosecutor has been dramatically enhanced,” he said. “Just go back before all of that, there is no video at all. The best thing you had was the police version typed up in a report, except for maybe other police witnesses.”
Noor conviction asterisk
The next barrier to be broken was the conviction of Noor, who shot Damond from inside his squad car in 2017. Damond, who was unarmed, had called 911 to report a potential assault in progress.
Like Yanez, Noor claimed self-defense, that Damond rushed up on the squad car and surprised him, but the jury convicted him. He’s currently serving a 12½-year sentence.
For civil rights activists, Noor’s conviction did little to satisfy their larger concern: police violence against Black men. Damond was a blond white woman — and Noor, who immigrated from Somalia, is Black.
“Think about it: We’ve only had one officer convicted in the state of Minnesota, and that was a Black, Muslim officer in the killing of an affluent white woman,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and past president of the Minneapolis NAACP. “We have not yet had a conviction in the Derek Chauvin trial.”
Levy Armstrong says things are changing, but she won’t concede that police are regularly and fully being held accountable.
“We are in an era where more people are waking up to the systemic problems with policing, and that’s because there is a movement, but the system hasn’t been overhauled,” she said.
One thing is clear: In the short history of Minnesota cops being criminally charged, the numbers are growing.
In March 2020, Washington County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Krook was acquitted by a jury of second-degree manslaughter after shooting and killing an unarmed suicidal man, Benjamin Evans, in Lake Elmo. Both men were white. It was the first such charges against an officer in Washington County.
St. Louis County prosecutors have charged an officer with an unjustified shooting for their first time as well. In September, Duluth police officer Tyler Leibfried shot and wounded Jared Fyle, who was unarmed, through a closed door while responding to a call of a domestic disturbance. Leibfried is preparing to stand trial on charges of intentional discharge of a firearm that endangers safety and reckless discharge of a gun within a municipality. Both men are white.
One case being watched closely is that of St. Paul police officer Tony Dean, who in November shot and injured Joseph Washington, a naked and unarmed Black man, after Washington emerged from hiding in a Dumpster. Police were searching for him on information he had sexually assaulted a woman earlier in the evening armed with a knife. Dean’s attorney has said Washington claimed to have a gun before getting out of the Dumpster. The Minnesota attorney general’s office is reviewing the case for possible charges.
Charges still uncommon
From a statistical standpoint, such numbers are too small to determine any true trends, and nationally, the picture is also inconclusive.
Between 2005 and 2021, 140 law enforcement officers have been arrested on murder or manslaughter charges in America, according to a tally by Philip Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and the Washington Post.
The numbers have been increasing: From 2005 to 2010, there were 32 officers charged; from 2015 to 2020, that number was 77.
However, Stinson said the total numbers are too small to be statistically significant.
“Yes, we’re seeing a few more cases each year, but the increases are statistically insignificant,” Stinson said, noting that he was surprised because the public conversation has shifted so strongly. “I would have hypothesized in early 2015 that we’d have a huge spike, but it just doesn’t happen.”
“We’re all paying attention more,” he said. “And it does feel like an awful lot for the Twin Cities area right now, but we’ve seen elsewhere in the country, similar clusters of charges.”
Ben Crump, the attorney representing the families of both Floyd and Wright, gathered recently in front of media cameras with a line of parents of Black men and women killed by police in incidents that drew national attention — but did not bring criminal charges against officers.
“The reason that we are able to get due process so quickly in the state of Minnesota for the killing of Daunte Wright is because of the blood of their children,” Crump said. “It was the blood of their children who got us to this point now in America.”