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Oklahoma City case one of the rare instances police are charged for on-duty shootings

Oklahoma City Police Department Sgt. Keith Sweeney has been arrested on a complaint of second degree murder. (Oklahoma County Jail)

An Oklahoma City police officer charged with second degree murder is now out of jail on bond. Sgt. Keith Sweeney will be placed under GPS surveillance and must surrender his passport and all guns at his home.

Sweeney is accused of breaking the law when he shot an unarmed, suicidal man last month.

The Oklahoma County district attorney filed the charge against him yesterday, a typically rare legal step.

Since 2011, there have been 64 shootings involving Oklahoma City police officers. None of them have faced criminal charges.

“Officer Sweeney said when asked why he fired his weapon, he said, ‘He had a knife in his hand and I felt like my life was in danger,’” said Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater. “And it will be a jury’s decision and duty to determine exactly the truth and veracity of that statement, and whether it’s supported by the facts.”

The Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police is expected to hire a defense attorney for Sweeney. The FOP cautioned citizens from jumping to conclusions about the case until all the facts are presented.

Nationwide, few police officers ever go to trial for shooting deaths. Convictions are even more rare.

“Police officers get the benefit of the doubt when they actually go to trial,” said Dr. Howard A. Kurtz, a professor of criminal justice at Southwestern Oklahoma State University.

Researchers at Bowling Green State University in Ohio found there are about a thousand police shootings every year in the U.S. Between 2005 and April 2017, 80 officers have been arrested on murder and manslaughter charges for on-duty shootings. Only 35 percent of those officers were convicted during that 12-year span. The rest were pending or not convicted.

Experts say it can be difficult for jurors to reject the accounts police officers give of those split-second decisions.

“I mean who deserves the benefit of the doubt on a dark street?” said Dr. Kurtz. “The person who might have a weapon, who’s causing a disturbance or acting in an unpredictable way – or do you give your doubt to the first responders, the people who put their lives on the line to deal with this situation?”

Several recent cases that have sparked national outrage ended with either no charges, acquittals, or mistrials.

  • In May, Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby was found not guilty of felony manslaughter in the shooting of Terence Crutcher
  • Three Baltimore officers were found not guilty in the death of Freddie Gray
  • The murder trial of the Charleston police officer who shot Walter Scott while he was running away ended with a hung jury
  • A jury cleared the Minnesota police officer who shot Philando Castile of all charges



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