Jun 29, 2023 - News

Murder charges against San Antonio officers are unusual

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Early Friday morning, three San Antonio police officers opened fire on 46-year-old Melissa Perez, killing her. By that evening, the officers had been arrested and charged with murder.

Catch up fast: Perez, who wielded a hammer at one point, was reportedly having a mental health crisis. Officers on her patio shot her while she was inside her apartment.

  • "This should have never occurred," deputy police chief Jesse Salame tells Axios. "This is a failure of officers to follow the long-established policies and training regarding how we would respond to a mental health call."
  • The responding officers should have called for the Police Department's mental health unit, Salame says.

Reality check: Fewer than 3% of killings by police each year result in charges against the officers, according to Mapping Police Violence, a research nonprofit that collects such data.

  • There's been a slight uptick in the number of officers charged since the police killing of George Floyd in 2020 in Minneapolis and the large protests against police violence that followed.
  • Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted on two murder charges and one manslaughter charge, was sentenced to two decades in prison for Floyd's death.

What they're saying: "When you have these high-salience events, I think you do see charges in a way that you wouldn't have perhaps in the past," Kate Levine, a professor at Cardozo School of Law who has focused on police prosecution, tells Axios.

By the numbers: In 2021, a record 21 U.S. police officers were charged with murder or manslaughter in an on-duty shooting, according to a database kept by the Police Integrity Research Group at Bowling Green State University, NBC News reported.

  • That's up from 16 officers charged in 2020; 12 in 2019; 10 in 2018; and seven in 2017, NBC reported.

The big picture: From 2005 to the middle of June 2019, at least 104 U.S. law enforcement officers were arrested on murder or manslaughter charges after shooting and killing someone while on duty, according to the Bowling Green research group.

  • Of those, 35 were convicted, often for a lesser offense.

Zoom out: Police officers have been charged in other recent high-profile cases across the country. Five police officers in Memphis were charged with murder in connection with the beating death of Tyre Nichols in January.

Context: In October 2022, it took a little more than a week for then-San Antonio police officer James Brennand to be arrested and charged after he shot and seriously injured teenager Erik Cantu, who was eating in a McDonald’s parking lot.

  • In June 2022, officer Stephen Ramos shot and killed 13-year-old Andre "AJ" Hernandez. In February, a grand jury declined to charge Ramos, who remains on the force.
  • In 2018, officer Steve Casanova shot and killed Charles Roundtree Jr., who was unarmed. The bullet was intended for someone else. A grand jury cleared Casanova of wrongdoing.
  • In 2016, officer John Lee shot and killed Antronie Scott, who was unarmed. Lee was never criminally charged. He was ordered to take additional training.

Between the lines: The public's opinion and level of attention to police misconduct plays a "huge" role in whether and how quickly officers may be charged, Levine tells Axios.

State of play: Swiftly charging officers with a crime doesn't prevent future police violence, Levine says.

  • Levine believes larger, systemic changes to how police operate are required.

Of note: San Antonio launched a pilot program in April 2022 called SA-CORE, in which a team including a mental health clinician, a paramedic and a police officer respond to certain 911 calls with a mental health concern.

  • The program operates from 7am to 11pm and serves the same area as the central substation, where most mental health calls come in.
  • It did not cover the call dispatching officers to Perez's apartment that occurred just after midnight and was outside of the central substation service area.
  • The city is slated to expand SA-CORE citywide beginning in January. The program will keep the same hours.
  • "That’s typically when we get most of our 911 mental health related calls," deputy city manager María Villagómez tells Axios.

The bottom line: While recent murder charges against San Antonio police may be rare, they are part of a changing landscape around how the public perceives — and prosecutors respond to — police misconduct.

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