We checked in on the police behind some of the most high-profiled police killings of the last 20 years. Some end up behind bars. Others get raises.
The police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee last month resulted in five officers involved being charged with murder and fired from the Memphis Police Department.
Nichols’s killing was notable for its apparent cruelty: Officers pepper sprayed, kicked, and punched an unarmed man to death. Footage from a nearby pole camera captured much of the assault, as well as officers standing around Nichols as he lay grievously injured. One detective took a photo and texted it to at least five others.
The Nichols case was unusual for the speed at which the officers involved were fired and charged, but the incident itself shared many similarities to other instances of egregious police violence that have risen to national attention in past decades.
These killings often draw intense public scrutiny, in some cases prompting departments to shut down elite “street crime” squads like Memphis’s Scorpion unit or forcing lawmakers to question police budgets and tactics. The victims in these cases become nationally known and their names — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Amadou Diallo — rallying cries against police abuses.
Police officers involved in the deaths have become an intense focus of investigation, protest, and media coverage. Ultimately, though, most of those officers fall out of public consciousness.
Despite being at the heart of some of the most defining incidents in modern policing, most of the officers involved continue to live their lives under the radar.
Insider’s review of 72 cops involved in two dozen of the most notorious police killings of the past 30 years shows the many different paths officers have taken. Some dwindled into obscurity after resigning or being fired. Others stayed on the force and even received promotions. A few became pro-police rallying points, while others ended up incarcerated for their crimes — an extreme rarity for police who kill people on the job.
Fewer than 2% of police officers who shoot and kill people while on duty are charged with murder or manslaughter, and fewer still are convicted, according to data collected by Philip Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University who studies police shootings. Despite nationwide protests demanding greater police accountability, that figure hasn’t changed markedly since 2005, the first year Stinson began collecting data.
“Every time there’s a big case, we think, ‘maybe this is the case where something changes,'” he said. “But it doesn’t.”
Prosecutors in most states still face steep obstacles to building criminal cases against officers. More departments have adopted body-worn cameras, but officers often fail to use them appropriately. Officers and police unions continue to close ranks around their colleagues who have been accused of using excessive force.
There’s no nationwide view into what happens to officers involved in egregious incidents of violence. A 2021 bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, would have created a nationwide database of police misconduct, but that legislation stalled and withered in a Republican-controlled Senate.
Insider attempted to contact the officers named in this article, but did not receive any replies to requests for comment. Multiple officers could also not be reached for comment.
The incidents that Insider reviewed, focusing on those that rose to national media and received mention in thousands of news clips, are not representative of officer-involved killings as a whole. Instead, these cases show how officers involved in high-profile killings like the one in Memphis last month can end up anywhere from behind bars to back on the force.
The cops who left the force
Many of the officers involved in high profile police killings resigned under public pressure or were fired by their departments following the incidents, but either never faced charges or were acquitted of criminal wrongdoing. These former cops are a grab bag of outcomes. Some fought unsuccessfully to be reinstated, while others drifted into different lines of work — sometimes with their past following them to their new professions.
Two of the four officers who fired their weapons in the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, who was unarmed when police shot him 41 times in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building, joined the New York City Fire Department. Edward McMellon and Richard Murphy were acquitted of all charges in Diallo’s death and months later successfully applied to become firefighters, prompting a wave of media coverage and criticism.
“If a Black man had ever murdered somebody and went to trial for murder, no matter what the circumstances, that man would not be allowed to be a firefighter,” Paul Washington, then-president of the Vulcan Society, said at the time.
Two Black firefighters transferred to different firehouses after McMellon was assigned to their engine company. (The FDNY denied at the time that the transfers were related to McMellon.)
McMellon is still an active member of the FDNY, the department confirmed to Insider, while Murphy is retired.
Meanwhile, several officers in high-profile killings complained in the following years that they became pariahs and found it difficult to restart their lives.
Darren Wilson, the officer who in 2014 shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, claimed a year after the incident that he faced death threats, was forced to move neighborhoods and was denied rejoining the police force after his acquittal. Wilson, who became a right-wing rallying point with supporters raising almost five hundred thousand dollars for him after the incident, told The New Yorker that he had quit a retail job stocking shoes after two weeks when reporters started calling the store.
A similar infamy dogged one of the officers who beat and injured Rodney King. Timothy Wind, one of the officers who repeatedly struck King, was acquitted of criminal charges but fired by the LAPD. He drew protests after being hired as an unarmed community service officer in Culver City, California in 1994. Wind eventually moved to small town Indiana to avoid scrutiny, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2012, but maintained he did nothing wrong and attended law school with the intent on pursuing a career in criminal justice. The AP reported in 2021 that he had moved to Kansas. Calls placed to numbers listed under his name didn’t go through or weren’t answered.
Other officers have retired with pensions or quietly found other careers. Michael Oliver, one of the NYPD officers involved in the fatal shooting of Sean Bell in 2006, was forced to resign but allowed to collect $40,000 in pension benefits, according to the New York Post. He later became a salesman at a New Jersey BMW dealership.
In rare cases, cops involved in these killings have tried to publicly rehabilitate their image rather than seek out anonymity. At least two officers in the cases that Insider reviewed wrote books about their experiences, most recently one of the three Louisville Metro Police officers involved in the botched raid that killed 26-year-old Breonna Taylor.
Jonathan Mattingly, who did not face any charges for his role in the raid, retired in 2021 and quickly wrote a tell-all book about the incident. Published through right-wing outlet The Daily Wire’s imprint DW Books, Mattingly’s book frames himself as a good cop unjustly vilified by “the media and the woke mob.” He repeatedly blames Taylor’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker, who shot and wounded Mattingly after police broke down the door while executing a warrant late at night, for provoking officers to kill Taylor. (Attorneys for Walker in his civil suit against the Louisville Department assert the book “perpetuates a lie” that their client knew it was police officers knocking down the door.)
Mattingly also devotes part of the book to his past assignments in an “alpha male” street crime unit and suggests celebrities such as LeBron James and Oprah Winfrey spread lies about the raid. In one section, he claims that defense attorneys refused to take him on as a client — something he suggests was discrimination due to his “race and profession.”
“I guess Oprah was wrong. My whiteness didn’t give me that unfair advantage or even a fair playing field. I’m simply a white guy in a WOKE world,” Mattingly writes.
A Republican gubernatorial candidate canceled his appearance at a fundraiser last month after learning Mattingly would also be a speaker.
The cops who stayed
Police officers back their own.
Even officers accused of severe misconduct often keep working as cops – including in cases where police departments shell out millions to settle civil lawsuits.
“There’s that thin blue line where officers are not just reluctant to, but don’t report on one another. It’s such a pervasive problem,” said Mari Newman, a civil rights attorney in Colorado who has sued police departments. “Officers don’t just stick together, but cover up each other’s wrongdoing.”
Three officers who in 2020 placed a “spit hood” over the head of Daniel Prude, then pushed his face into the ground, suffocating him to death, were working for the Rochester, New York police department as recently as last year, city records show. The city paid $12 million to Prude’s family; the officers were not charged. The two officers who shot Stephon Clark seven times in his grandmother’s backyard still work for the Sacramento Police Department; that city has paid more than $4 million to Clark’s family. The officers were not charged.
Involvement in notorious police killings hasn’t stopped some officers from receiving promotions and honors.
In Seattle, the two officers who killed Charleena Lyles in her apartment in front of her children in 2017 are still on the force, according to city records. Six officers charged and acquitted in the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015 still work for the police department; one has been promoted to lieutenant. The officers who killed Lyles weren’t charged.
In New York City, Kenneth Boss, one of the officers who fired shots in the killing of Diallo in 1999, stayed on the force for nearly 20 more years after being acquitted of murder charges. Boss received a promotion in 2015, and one year later a New York police union named him a “Sergeant of the Year” for rescuing a couple stranded on an island in Jamaica Bay.
It can also take so long to build a criminal case against police that even officers who do get prosecuted can stay on the force for years before charges are brought.
Elijah McClain, 23, died in August 2019 after three police officers in Aurora, Colorado, slammed him into a wall, held him to the ground, and put him in a chokehold. Paramedics arriving on the scene diagnosed the by-then unconscious McClain with “excited delirium” and injected him with ketamine; he suffered a heart attack on the way to the hospital. An autopsy report found the cause of death to be “complications of ketamine administration following forcible restraint.”
McClain, who had a blood circulation disorder that caused him to get cold easily, had been wearing a ski mask while walking through the Denver suburb. A resident called 911 to report a “sketchy” person.
Initially, the officers were cleared of wrongdoing. The local district attorney, acting on information collected by the police department, declined to prosecute. The department’s internal investigation was “cursory and summary at best,” independent investigators later found.
All three officers went back to work.
One of them, Randy Roedema, was involved in another excessive force case the very next year. Another, Jason Rosenblatt, responded “ha ha” when a colleague texted him making fun of McClain’s death; he was fired over that incident.
Two years after McClain’s death a state-appointed special investigator brought charges against the three officers. The new investigation had been spurred by massive racial justice protests in the summer of 2020.
“Make no mistake, we recognize that this case will be difficult to prosecute,” Colorado attorney general Phil Weiser said in a news conference at the time. “These types of cases always are.”
Prosecutors who want to bring charges against officers who kill face a myriad of challenges. There is a standard requiring them to prove that the officer acted unreasonably, a high legal bar. Other officers in a department may stonewall attempts to gain information, and body camera footage from the incidents can be incomplete or nonexistent.
Police unions can also be quick to defend their members against any punitive measures for their actions on the job. Even after the charges, the Aurora police union insisted that the officers “did nothing wrong” and that McClain’s death was related to his decision to “violently resist arrest.”
“The hysterical overreaction to this case has severely damaged the police department,” the union said in a statement issued at the time of the charges.
Officers sometimes leave the department where the incident occurred, transferring townships or jurisdictions. The NYPD reassigned one of the other officers involved in the Diallo killing to a unit at a sleepy airfield in southern Brooklyn where the department conducts helicopter operations.
Two of the three officers charged with murdering George Robinson in 2019 left the Jackson, Mississippi police department after Robinson’s death, for the nearby city of Clinton’s police department.
“We don’t want anything to do with a bad cop and if I thought these guys were bad cops, we wouldn’t have hired them,” Clinton’s police chief Ford Hayman told local news in 2020. Hayman and Clinton Mayor Phil Fisher attended the officers’ arraignment for moral support. Fisher has implied the criminal charges may be politically motivated and called on the media to “spend as much time in the exoneration process as they have in the accusing process.”
One of the officers Clinton hired was later convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison.
In rare instances, officers are too politically toxic to keep on staff. After killing 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann has applied for at least two other policing jobs but withdrew his applications after his hiring sparked community furor. Loehmann was not charged in Rice’s death, but was fired from the Cleveland police department in 2017 for lying on his employment application.
Last year, Loehmann was briefly hired to be the sole cop in the tiny town of Tioga, Pennsylvania, before protest prompted the city to reverse its decision. Tioga’s mayor told local news that Rice’s death never came up in the interview process.
“I found it strange that someone would move here all the way from Cleveland, Ohio, for $18 an hour,” mayor Dave Wilcox told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “But I heard that he wanted to get away from it all and come here to hunt and fish.”
The cops who were convicted
In the past 18 years, 172 police have been charged with murder or manslaughter for an on-duty shooting, according to Stinson, the professor at Bowling Green State University, and 55 of them have been convicted of some crime. That data doesn’t include cases that didn’t involve a gun, like the killings of George Floyd or Tyre Nichols.
Out of the 72 officers that Insider researched, 16 of them were convicted or pleaded guilty.
Some convicted officers received long sentences, like Derek Chauvin, who killed Floyd and is set to remain in prison until 2038. Amber Guyger, the Texas officer convicted of murdering her upstairs neighbor Botham Jean after allegedly mistaking his apartment for her own, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, though she will be eligible for parole starting in September 2024.
In some cases, officers found support from police unions while awaiting trial. Gescard Insora, an NYPD detective who was the first to open fire on Sean Bell in 2006, was acquitted of criminal charges but fired and reported by the New York Post in 2013 to have gotten a job with the Detectives Endowment Association. Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago cop convicted of killing Laquan McDonald, worked as a janitor for a Chicago police union while his case was pending.
Van Dyke, who was released from prison in 2022, now works in construction and still lives with his family in the Chicago area, according to his lawyer Dan Herbert. “He’s doing okay,” Herbert said. “It took a lot out of him.”
Others spend little or no time behind bars. Johannes Mehserle, a transit cop who shot Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, served 11 months in prison after he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Peter Liang, a rookie NYPD officer who fired a round into a dark stairwell that ricocheted and killed Akai Gurley, was sentenced to five years of probation.
Insider couldn’t find current contact information for Mehserle and a voicemail left for his father didn’t receive a response. One of Liang’s lawyers agreed to pass on a reporter’s contact info, but no response was received.
In Memphis, some hope that the indictment of the five officers who killed Tyre Nichols proves to be a break with the past. Steve Nelson, the Shelby County district attorney, took office last year after beating prosecutor Amy Weirich, who faced allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and a track record of not charging cops, according to the Huffington Post.
But the outcome of any case of officer-involved killings or police abuse always carries a level of uncertainty. Policing is fragmented across nearly 18,000 jurisdictions, said Justin Nix, a criminology professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha who has studied the effect of racial justice protests on police departments. That means 18,000 different approaches to holding officers accountable for violence.
“For every example of accountability, it’s easy to pick an example of an officer who skirted consequences for misconduct,” Nix said.