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S.C. trooper pleads guilty in shooting of unarmed black man. How common?

Sean Groubert faces up to 20 years in prison for the 2014 shooting of Levar Jones. More police officers have been charged in fatal shootings in recent years, but they are still rare, with convictions even rarer still.

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    South Carolina State trooper Sean Groubert poses for a booking photo. Mr. Groubert on Monday pleaded guilty to charges relating to the shooting incident involving an unarmed black man. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
    South Carolina State Police/AP/File
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A state trooper in South Carolina pleaded guilty Monday to charges relating to the 2014 shooting of unarmed black man after a traffic stop.

Levar Jones was walking into a convenience store in September 2014 when Trooper Sean Groubert pulled up to him without his sirens on. The trooper got out of his car and asked Mr. Jones for his license. As Jones turned back to his car, Mr. Groubert shouted, "Get outta the car, get outta the car," and fires four shots in about three seconds.

The whole incident was captured on dash-cam video. Leroy Smith, the state public safety director and Groubert's boss, fired him after seeing the video.

Jones survived the shooting, and the trooper pleaded guilty to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

His case closely mirrors that of another South Carolina police officer, and both cases together exhibit how new video technology and increased public scrutiny of how police use lethal force – provoked by a series of questionable police shootings over the past year – has eroded the kind of preferential treatment officers have long enjoyed from the judicial system.

When an April 2015 traffic stop in North Charleston, S.C., spiraled out of control, Michael Slager, a local police officer, shot Walter Scott five times. Mr. Slager initially told investigators that Mr. Scott had attacked him and taken his Taser, but a bystander cell phone video released a few days later appeared to contradict those statements, and Slager was arrested, fired from the police department, and charged with murder.

Kenneth Gaines, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, told the Monitor in September that without the video, "things probably would have been a little different" in the Slager case.

In the past officer's like Groubert and Slager may have enjoyed the benefit of the doubt "at every stage of proceedings," Professor Gaines added.

"Now it's probably more equal treatment in terms of how they're treated pretrial," he continued. "I don't think [Slager] has really been treated any differently than anyone else who [would be] similarly situated."

That doesn’t mean that more police officers are getting convicted in fatal shooting incidents, however. In fact, they are rarely even charged.

A dozen officers were charged in fatal shootings in 2015 – the highest number in at least a decade – but data suggest there were over 800 such shootings that year. Convictions are even rarer still. During the past decade, less than 1 in 4 of such prosecutions have resulted in convictions.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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