On a rainy night five years ago, Officer Coleman “Duke” Brackney set off in pursuit of a suspected drunk driver, chasing his black Mazda Miata down rural Arkansas roads at speeds of nearly 100 miles per hour. When the sports car finally came to rest in a ditch, Brackney opened fire at the rear window and repeatedly struck the driver, 41-year-old James Ahern, in the back. The gunshots killed Ahern.
Prosecutors charged Brackney with felony manslaughter. But he eventually entered a plea to a lesser charge and could ultimately be left with no criminal record.
Now, he serves as the police chief in a small community 20 miles from the scene of the shooting.
Brackney is among 54 officers charged over the past decade for fatally shooting someone while on duty, according to an analysis by The Washington Post and researchers at Bowling Green State University. This analysis, based on a wide range of public records and interviews with law enforcement, judicial and other legal experts, sought to identify for the first time every officer who faced charges for such shootings since 2005. These represent a small fraction of the thousands of fatal police shootings that have occurred across the country in that time.
In an overwhelming majority of the cases where an officer was charged, the person killed was unarmed. But it usually took more than that.
When prosecutors pressed charges, The Post analysis found, there were typically other factors that made the case exceptional, including: a victim shot in the back, a video recording of the incident, incriminating testimony from other officers or allegations of a coverup.
WARNING: GRAPHIC – SOUTH CAROLINA SHOOTING
This video contains graphic content. A police officer in North Charleston, S.C., has been charged with murder after shooting a man during a traffic stop. Authorities said the decision to charge officer Michael Slager was made after they viewed video footage of the incident that showed him shooting the other man in the back as he was fleeing the scene.
Forty-three cases involved at least one of these four factors. Nineteen cases involved at least two.
In the most recent incident, officials in North Charleston, S.C., filed a murder charge Tuesday against a white police officer, Michael T. Slager, for gunning down an apparently unarmed black man. A video recording showed Slager repeatedly shooting the man in the back as he was running away.
“To charge an officer in a fatal shooting, it takes something so egregious, so over the top that it cannot be explained in any rational way,” said Philip M. Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green who studies arrests of police. “It also has to be a case that prosecutors are willing to hang their reputation on.”
But even in these most extreme instances, the majority of the officers whose cases have been resolved have not been convicted, The Post analysis found.
And when they are convicted or plead guilty, they’ve tended to get little time behind bars, on average four years and sometimes only weeks. Jurors are very reluctant to punish police officers, tending to view them as guardians of order, according to prosecutors and defense lawyers.
The definition of “officers” used in the analysis extends beyond local police to all government law enforcement personnel who are armed, including sheriff’s deputies and corrections officers. The analysis included some shootings that officers described as accidental.
There is no accurate tally of all the cases of police shootings across the country, even deadly ones. The FBI maintains a national database of fatal shootings by officers but does not require police departments to keep it updated.
Over the past year, a series of controversial police killings of unarmed victims — including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Eric Garner on Staten Island — has raised questions over what it takes for officers to face criminal charges. Often, the public is divided over whether the police went too far. Only in rare cases do prosecutors and grand juries decide that the killing cannot be justified.
Such cases include a Michigan state trooper who shot and killed an unarmed homeless man in Detroit as he was shuffling toward him, the man’s pants down past his knees. The incident was captured on video, and the officer, who said he thought the man had a gun, was charged with second-degree murder. A jury accepted the officer’s account and found him not guilty. He remains on the job.
They also include a police officer in Darlington County, S.C., who was charged with murder after he chased an unarmed man wanted for stealing a gas grill and three U-Haul trailers into the woods, shooting him in the back four times. A jury, believing that he feared for his life, found him not guilty.
Two Atlanta plainclothes officers opened fire and killed a 92-year-old woman during a mistaken drug raid on her home. As they pried the bars off her front door, she fired a single warning shot with an old revolver. The police responded by smashing the door down and shooting at her 39 times. One of the officers tried to disguise their error by planting bags of marijuana in her basement. The two officers pleaded guilty and received unusually stiff sentences of six and 10 years in a federal prison.
A rap musician, Killer Mike, wrote a song to memorialize the death of this African American grandmother at the hands of white officers, comparing her killing to “the dream of King when the sniper took his life.”
After the death of Michael Brown last summer, concerns about racism in policing have exploded in public debate, in particular whether white officers use excessive force when dealing with minorities and whether the criminal justice system protects the victims’ rights.
Among the officers charged since 2005 for fatal shootings, more than three-quarters were white. Two-thirds of their victims were minorities, all but two of them black.
Nearly all other cases involved black officers who killed black victims. In one other instance, a Latino officer fatally shot a white person and in another an Asian officer killed a black person. There were a total of 49 victims.
Identifying the exact role of race in fatal shootings and prosecutions is difficult. Often, prosecutors pursued charges against a backdrop of protests accusing police of racism. Race was also a factor in court when federal prosecutors stepped in and filed charges against officers for allegedly violating the victims’ civil rights. Six officers, all white, faced federal civil rights charges for killing blacks.
In interviews with more than 20 prosecutors across the country, they said that race did not factor into their decisions to bring charges against officers. The prosecutors said they pursued cases based on the legal merits.
But defense lawyer Doug Friesen, who represented a white officer convicted in 2013 for fatally shooting an unarmed black man, said that “it would be naive” for prosecutors to say race isn’t a consideration.
“Anytime you have politicians that have to make charging decisions, realistically that is part of their decision-making process,” Friesen said. “They are asking themselves, ‘Is there going to be rioting out in the streets?’ ”
Both Officer Coleman “Duke” Brackney and his victim James Ahern, shot dead in his Miata, were white.
Brackney, 32, recalled in an interview that he believed Ahern was about to back his car up and run over him. The engine was racing and the backup lights flashed, Brackney said.
A video, captured by a camera mounted on his cruiser’s dashboard, indicated that the sports car was not moving when the officer opened fire. The existence of that video was the key reason why prosecutors decided to bring charges, they said.
“In my mind, it was the third time he tried to run me over,” Brackney said in an interview with The Post. “His right hand came up in this sweeping motion, and I thought he was going for a gun. I don’t know what a jury would have believed — and that’s the problem. There was this risk, so entering a plea, I viewed it as a business decision.”
After pleading to a reduced charge of negligent homicide, a misdemeanor, Brackney served 30 days in jail as part of a plea agreement. The judge deferred the conviction, and if Brackney fulfills the terms of his probation, the case will be dismissed.
“No one wants to take a life, but at the end of the day, I realize that I’m the one who got to go home,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t change what I did.”
He was fired by the Bella Vista Police Department, where he worked at the time, but was given another chance by the city of Sulphur Springs, Ark. Two years ago, city officials hired him to run the police department, where he manages a force of four officers who spend much of their time patrolling quiet streets and arresting small-time drug dealers.
Excerpt, read more Thousands Dead, Few Prosecuted | Washington Post
❋ Story by Kimberly Kindy, Kimbriell Kelly
❋ Graphics by Vesko Cholakov, Kevin Schaul
❋ Videos by Whitney Leaming, Divya Verma, Natasha Rudnick
Related: South Carolina: Police Dashcam of Moments Before Shooting (FULL VIDEO)
❋ Killed By Police (Data Collection)