White Police Officer Convicted of Manslaughter for Death of Unarmed Black Teen

News & Politics

A white police officer was convicted of voluntary manslaughter Thursday for the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, in a rare verdict that separates this Virginia case from other high-profile police shootings that ultimately resulted in little to no culpability for the officers involved.

Former Portsmouth police officer Stephen Rankin faces up to 10 years in prison for the death of William Chapman, who was killed last April in a Walmart parking lot as Rankin attempted to apprehend the 18-year-old under suspicion the teen had shoplifted, Huffington Post reports. It is unclear whether Chapman actually stole anything from the store.

Some of the details of the altercation are in dispute, but several witnesses testified Chapman had his hands up as the officer approached him. According to Rankin—and backed by some witnesses—Chapman charged toward the officer, knocking his stungun to the ground. Rankin said he had no choice but to shoot Chapman.

Rankin was previously involved in the fatal shooting of Krill Denyakin, an unarmed man from Kazakhstan who was shot 11 times. The grand jury declined to indict Rankin, but he was banned from patrol for three years. Rankin was eventually fired from the Portsmouth Police Department as he awaited trial for Chapman’s killing.

The officer was originally charged with first-degree murder and using a firearm to commit a felony, but Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminology at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, told Huffington Post a murder conviction was always unlikely in this case.

“The Rankin verdict makes sense to me,” Stinson said. “As soon as I heard testimony during the trial from another officer that when he arrived on the scene right after the shooting, Rankin was performing CPR on the man he had just shot...There’s no way a jury would convict a police officer on a murder charge with those facts.”

Only a handful of police officers have faced prosecution for on-duty shootings; since 2005, 74 police officers across the country have been charged with murder or manslaughter for using deadly force while on duty. As Huffington Post notes, “the overwhelming majority of police shooting cases are ultimately determined to be justified homicides, in which deadly force was used lawfully, often in what police say was an effort to protect an officer’s safety or to prevent harm to the public.”

As communities across the country increasingly demand accountability for police officers involved in fatal shootings, citizens are beginning to play a pivotal role in bringing officers to justice. The use of cell phones for video recording police is on the rise, as is an increase in the number of police departments that require officers to use body cameras.

“What we see over and over in the videos is that the videos contradict the narratives given immediately after shooting by police on the scene and that officers involved in these unjustified shootings are not acting in ways consistent with their training,” Stinson said.

The use of video recording by citizens and police is shifting how these fatal police shootings are delivered to the public. Rankin’s conviction may prove to be a watershed moment in police accountability, as opposed to an outlier in a larger narrative about police being above the law.

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