AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
Police Shootings Continue to Make Headlines

Police killings of Black people continue to make headlines—as a Texas officer is convicted of murder

It happened two years in a row: a Black person shot and killed inside their own home by a white police officer in Texas.Marina Trahan Martinez, Sarah Mervosh, and John Eligon, “Amber Guyger Is Sentenced to 10 Years for Murder of Botham Jean,” New York Times, October 2, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/02/us/amber-guyger-sentencing.html; and Marina Trahan Martinez, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, and Sarah Mervosh, “Fort Worth Officer Charged with Murder for Shooting Woman in Her Home,” New York Times, October 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/us/fort-worth-police-officer-charged-murder.html.

In 2018, off-duty Dallas officer Amber Guyger—who said she mistook her neighbor’s apartment for her own—opened fire and killed Botham Jean, a Black man who had been watching television and eating ice cream in his apartment.Martinez, Mervosh, and Eligon, “Amber Guyger Is Sentenced,” 2019.And in 2019, just two weeks after Guyger was convicted of murder, a Fort Worth officer shot and killed a Black woman, Atatiana Jefferson, through a window of her house as she was in her bedroom playing video games with her eight-year-old nephew.Marina Trahan Martinez, Sarah Mervosh, and John Eligon, “Former Dallas Police Officer Is Guilty of Murder for Killing Her Neighbor,” New York Times, October 1, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/01/us/amber-guyger-trial-verdict-botham-jean.html; Martinez, Bogel-Burroughs, and Mervosh, “Fort Worth Officer Charged with Murder,” 2019; and “What We Know About the Fort Worth Police Shooting of Atatiana Jefferson,” New York Times, October 15, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/15/us/aaron-dean-atatiana-jefferson.html.

Those two cases dominated the conversation on police use of force last year, but there was much more happening away from the cameras: according to the Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” database, 931 people around the country were shot and killed by police in 2019 (compared to 992 in 2018), and there were countless other accusations of excessive force leading to injury.“Fatal Force 2019,” Washington Post, updated January 6, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/national/police-shootings-2019/; “Excessive Force,” The Marshall Project, updated November 13, 2019, https://perma.cc/EM7C-C7N3; and “Fatal Force 2018,” Washington Post, updated March 31, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/national/police-shootings-2018/.A large proportion of the victims continued to be people of color—especially Black people, who made up at least 23 percent of those killed despite comprising only about 13 percent of the population—as well as those with mental illnesses or disabilities.Shaun King, “If You Are Black and in a Mental Health Crisis, 911 Can Be a Death Sentence,” The Intercept, September 29, 2019, https://perma.cc/4RNQ-L4MH. For the number of Black people shot and killed by police, see “Fatal Force 2019,” Washington Post, 2020. For population estimates by race, see United States Census Bureau, “QuickFacts: United States,” database (Washington, DC: US Census Bureau), https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219.

Very few police officers have been held accountable for such deaths over the years.Janell Ross, “Police Officers Convicted for Fatal Shootings Are the Exception, Not the Rule,” NBC News, March 13, 2019, https://perma.cc/RHT4-EFCL.But, after five hours of deliberation, the Dallas jury found Guyger—by then off the force—guilty of murder after a highly publicized trial.Martinez, Mervosh, and Eligon, “Former Dallas Police Officer Is Guilty,” 2019; Bobby Allyn, “Ex-Dallas Officer Who Killed Man in His Own Apartment Is Found Guilty of Murder,” NPR, October 1, 2019, https://perma.cc/HSJ7-3FS8.But although Guyger faced life in prison and prosecutors had asked for no less than 28 years, the jury sentenced her to only 10.Martinez, Mervosh, and Eligon, “Amber Guyger Is Sentenced,” 2019.“No justice, no peace” chants echoed outside the courthouse as many expressed outrage at what they called a lenient sentence, while others pointed to Jean’s brother Brandt—who hugged Guyger at the end of his victim impact statement and said he forgave her—as proof that the sentence was appropriate.Bobby Allyn, “Amber Guyger, Ex-Officer Who Killed Man In His Apartment, Given 10 Years In Prison,” NPR, October 2, 2019, https://perma.cc/44M2-FQKV; and Martinez, Mervosh, and Eligon, “Amber Guyger Is Sentenced,” 2019.

The outrage would grow just 10 days later when police officer Aaron Dean shot Atatiana Jefferson after responding to a call from a concerned neighbor about an open front door.Michelle Ruiz, “After Atatiana Jefferson’s Death, Will There Be More Consequences for Police-Involved Shootings?” Vogue, October 15, 2019, https://perma.cc/C44X-ETWL; and “What We Know About the Fort Worth Police Shooting,” 2019.She was the sixth person to be killed by the Fort Worth police in four months; four of the six were Black.Nichole Manna, “Fort Worth Officers Have Shot 7 People This Year. Six Shootings Were Fatal,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, October 14, 2019, https://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/crime/article236198488.html.City officials quickly decried the shooting, and Dean—who resigned before he could be fired—was charged with murder, and was indicted by a grand jury in December.“What We Know About the Fort Worth Police Shooting,” 2019; and Martinez, Bogel-Burroughs, and Mervosh, “Fort Worth Officer Charged with Murder,” 2019. For the indictment, see Melissa Alonso and Christina Maxouris, “Former Fort Worth Officer Indicted in Atatiana Jefferson's Shooting Death,” CNN, December 20, 2019, https://perma.cc/K2K4-SBUZ.

Other cases of officer-involved shootings proceeded during the year. In March, former Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld was found not guilty on all charges stemming from the fatal 2018 shooting of unarmed Black teenager Antwon Rose II.Adeel Hassan, “Antwon Rose Shooting: White Police Officer Acquitted in Death of Black Teenager,” New York Times, March 22, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/22/us/antwon-rose-shooting.html.Rose, 17, was shot three times as he ran during a traffic stop.Lauren del Valle and Ralph Ellis, “Former East Pittsburgh Officer Found Not Guilty in Fatal Shooting of Unarmed Teenager,” CNN, March 23, 2019, https://perma.cc/4JJJ-XHVK.In May, former Arlington, Texas, police officer Bau Tran was indicted on charges of criminally negligent homicide in the fatal shooting of 24-year-old Black man O’Shae Terry during a traffic stop.Sarah Sarder, “Family of Man Killed During Traffic Stop Sues Arlington, Cop Who Was Indicted for Wrongful Death,” Dallas Morning News, September 4, 2019, https://www.dallasnews.com/news/courts/2019/09/04/family-of-man-killed-during-traffic-stop-sues-arlington-cop-who-was-indicted-for-wrongful-death/Tran had been responding to a call for backup in 2018 when he shot five times into Terry’s SUV as it started to move forward, killing him.“Prosecutors: Cop Charged in Shooting Had Disciplinary Flaws,” Associated Press, November 6, 2019, https://perma.cc/M63R-ABY5.

In July, four Chicago police officers were fired after an independent board ruled they had tried to cover up the 2014 shooting of Black teenager Laquan McDonald.Pierre Meilhan, “Chicago Police Board Fires 4 Officers Over ‘Cover Up’ in the Fatal Shooting of Laquan McDonald,” CNN, July 18, 2019, https://perma.cc/JGR6-XYDQ.In an attempt to help fellow officer Jason Van Dyke—who shot 17-year-old McDonald 16 times and was convicted of second-degree murder in 2018—the four officers exaggerated the threat the Black teenager posed, the board said, falsely reporting that McDonald had attempted to stab VanDyke and another officer.Aamer Madhani, “Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke Guilty of Second-Degree Murder in 2014 Shooting Death of 17-Year-Old Laquan McDonald,” USA Today, October 5, 2018,https://perma.cc/2B73-BQWR; and Doug Stanglin, “4 Chicago Cops Fired for Allegedly Covering Up Fatal Shooting of Black Teen Laquan McDonald,” USA Today, July 19, 2019, https://perma.cc/BD2Z-YMLP.Dash-cam footage of the shooting showed McDonald walking away from officers.WGN Web Desk and Julie Unruh, “Chicago Releases Dash-Cam Video of Officer Shooting Laquan McDonald,” WGN, November 24, 2019, https://perma.cc/9BBN-VYUW.

In October, Seattle police officer Jared Keller was cleared of wrongdoing by the Seattle Office of Professional Accountability in the killing of Iosia Faletogo, who was shot and killed in 2018 while fleeing the scene of a traffic stop.Melissa Lemieux, “Seattle Police Rules Officer Justified in Shooting Man Point Blank Held Down by Five Other Officers,” Newsweek, October 16, 2019, https://perma.cc/J6M8-8YPE; Lester Black, “SPD Releases Graphic Video of Cop Killing Man on New Year’s Eve,” The Stranger, January 3, 2019, https://perma.cc/8Z95-NL8W; Christine Clarridge, “Family of Man Killed by Seattle Officer on New Year’s Eve Questions Police Account of Shooting,”Seattle Times, January 4, 2019, https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/crime/family-of-man-killed-by-seattle-officer-questions-police-account-of-shooting/; and Melissa Hellman, “Local Samoan Community Reacts to Fatal Police Shooting,” Seattle Weekly, January 22, 2019, https://perma.cc/6TLE-D7QM.Faletogo, who had been forced to the ground by six police officers, dropped a gun after one officer warned him that he was going to be shot; roughly 20 seconds later, Keller fired a single shot, killing the 36-year-old Samoan American.Lemieux, “Seattle Police Rules Officer Justified,” 2019; and Black, “SPD Releases Graphic Video,” 2019.An investigation into the shooting found that Faletogo had been moving his hands in a way consistent with reaching for the handgun on the ground.Lemieux, “Seattle Police Rules Officer Justified,” 2019.

There were also developments in the five-year-old case of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Black man who was killed by a New York City police officer who put him in a chokehold while trying to arrest him on charges of illegally selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island.J. David Goodman, “Eric Garner Died in a Police Chokehold. Why Has the Inquiry Taken So Long?” New York Times, November 7, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/07/nyregion/eric-garner-trial-nypd.html.In July, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it would not prosecute Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) police officer who killed Garner.Katie Benner, “Eric Garner’s Death Will Not Lead to Federal Charges for N.Y.P.D. Officer,” New York Times, July 16, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/16/nyregion/eric-garner-case-death-daniel-pantaleo.html.Pantaleo had already avoided criminal charges back in 2014 when a grand jury declined to indict him.J. David Goodman and Al Baker, “Wave of Protests After Grand Jury Doesn’t Indict Officer in Eric Garner Chokehold Case,” New York Times, December 3, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/04/nyregion/grand-jury-said-to-bring-no-charges-in-staten-island-chokehold-death-of-eric-garner.html.

The DOJ had been considering charging him with violating Garner’s civil rights, but U.S. Attorney General William Barr decided to drop the case.Benner, “Eric Garner’s Death Will Not Lead,” 2019.The next month, following an internal disciplinary trial, Pantaleo was fired from the NYPD and stripped of his pension benefits for violating the police department’s ban on chokeholds.Corinne Ramey, “Disciplinary Trial Begins for Officer Accused in Eric Garner’s Death,” Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/disciplinary-trial-begins-for-officer-accused-in-eric-garners-death-11557785890; and Ashley Southall, “Daniel Pantaleo, Officer Who Held Eric Garner in Chokehold, Is Fired,” New York Times, August 19, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/19/nyregion/daniel-pantaleo-fired.html.Then, in August, the final police disciplinary case over Garner’s death concluded when Sergeant Kizzy Adonis, who had arrived on the scene as police forced Garner to the ground, pleaded no contest to failure to supervise and was ordered to forfeit 20 vacation days.Ashley Southall, “Final Punishment in Eric Garner Case: Sergeant Loses Vacation Time,” New York Times, August 21, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/21/nyregion/sergeant-kizzy-adonis-eric-garner-pantaleo.html; and Mark Morales and Evan Simko-Bednarski, “NYPD Sgt. Loses Vacation Days for Supervisory Failures in Garner Death,” CNN, August 22, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/22/us/nypd-sergeant-guilty-garner/index.html.The case that helped fuel the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement had finally officially closed.