police killings

All posts tagged police killings

We are have reached the one year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, and the past year has seen an unprecedented amount of activism surrounding the nature of policing in general and race relations more broadly. Sadly, the issue of lethal police use of force is hardly a new issue; six years ago I wrote about the Washington Post’s then-new database on police shootings, and I noted that “[o]ver the past three years as we have tried to come to terms with the many high-profile police killings across the country.” And the issue of police use of force obviously stretches back far before that–it has been a problem for decades, if not centuries. If there is a silver lining regarding the social and political upheaval that we are now undergoing on this issue, it is that we are finally dealing with this issue head on, and therefore we may have a chance to make progress.

Unfortunately, a lot of the past year has seen more heat than light brought to bear on the question of police use of lethal force, on both sides. Given the nature of the problem, this level of passion and raw emotion is understandable. And any serious effort to change status quo needs to generate political energy and grass-roots support to be successful. But the ultimate goal has to be real, meaningful, achievable reform, which means diagnosing the problem accurately and then building coalitions to generate majority support for a sustained solution.

Most of the protests–and most of the media coverage of the issue–has focused on the fact that police use lethal force against Black Americans at a higher rate than against other groups. This disparity has led to calls for greater diversity and implicit bias training for police officers, as well as a broader political movement to address systemic racism that exists throughout society. These are all urgently important issues, and our country will be a better one because of the challenging discussions we are now having and the reforms that they will bring about, inside and outside of the criminal justice system. But as many reformers are pointing out, the issue of police lethal use of force does not only affect Black Americans; the Washington Post database notes that victims of police killing come from across the racial spectrum; given the higher numbers of whites than Blacks in the American population, police kill twice as many white people as Black people.

Thus, even if all of the factors that lead to a disproportionate number of Black victims were eliminated, and Black citizens were victims of police shootings to the same degree as white citizens, we would still see over 700 police killings per year, including roughly a hundred Black victims.  Some percentage of these killings are unjustified, and certain reforms (such as increased use of body cameras and the elimination of qualified immunity for police officers) will help to deter such actions. But most of these police killings are justifiable under the law. Thus, we need to think not just in terms of eliminating unjustified killings, but also work on reducing the much larger number of justified killings–that is, we need to work towards a world in which police are almost never put into a position where it becomes necessary to use lethal force. By re-framing the debate in these terms, we are more likely to find a consensus among the police and those being policed.; law enforcement officers never want to find themselves having to make life-or-death situations, even if their actions are ultimately found to be justified. And these situations are obviously dangerous for police officers as well: over a hundred police officers are killed on duty each year. Politically, reaching a consensus with the police and their supporters is necessary: even at the height of the protests in the summer of 2020–the political zenith for those who seek to challenge the way we police crime in this country–a majority of the public still supported the police and rejected calls to abolish or even cut funding to police departments. Thus, arguing that the police are racist and calling for police forces to be disbanded is not a way to build the coalitions which are required to achieve the necessary reforms.

Luckily, there are a number of common sense reforms that are supported by a majority of Americans that can make a real difference in reducing the instances of police lethal use of force. Banning no-knock search warrants, requiring body cameras for every police officer, banning chokeholds, enhancing community policing efforts, increasing funding for mental-health professionals to work with police departments, increased police training, and emphasizing de-escalation tactics in training are all policies that could go a long way to reducing the number of violent and potentially lethal encounters between civilians and police. Many of these reforms are found in the federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which has passed the House. In later posts, I will break down some of these potential reforms and evaluate how effective they might be.

This week the Washington Post unveiled a database it has been compiling regarding the fatal police shootings in this country.  This is essential data that, shockingly, nobody had been officially tracking before.  Over the past three years as we have tried to come to terms with the many high-profile police killings across the country, any serious analyses and conclusions were limited by the fact that no organization had been keeping track of this number in any systematic way.  Bravo to the Washington Post for doing what newspapers, at their best, should be doing.  One small critique up front–it seems to me that the database should keep track of all police killings, not just police killings by firearm.  Two of the most controversial police killings over the past year have been the chokehold death in Staten Island, and the death in the police van in Baltimore–neither of which would show up in these numbers.
What do the numbers say?  The raw number is 463 killings in the first six months of 2014.  I am not surprised by the absolute number of killings.  Obviously any killing by a police officer is one too many, but nationally the police engage in over twelve million arrests per year–and certainly if we add in the number of non-arrest police-citizen encounters, that number grows even higher.  Given those numbers, and the high prevalence of gun ownership in this country (see below) some amount of violent encounters between police and civilians is unavoidable.  (The numbers also go both ways–last year 126 police officers were killed in the line of duty).  And of the 463 fatalities so far this year, the suspect was armed in 387 of them, which is at least some evidence that many of those killings were justifiable.
Having said that, it does not take too much digging into the numbers to get to some truly startling and troubling numbers.  The most troubling is the racialized aspect of the statistics.  Although whites made up almost exactly 50% of those who were killed, they made up only 27% of the unarmed civilians being killed–blacks and Latinos made up 75% of that number.  This confirms a lot of what many studies have told us about how implicit bias can change a police officer’s instinctive reaction to a situation depending on the race of the subject.  It also implies that a lot of the killings of unarmed civilians could be avoided–there is no legitimate reason why the numbers for non-whites should be disproportionate to the numbers for whites.
One other point which I can’t resist making.  I am currently in Oxford teaching Comparative Criminal Procedure, and I opened my class today talking about these numbers and the new Washington Post database (it is unrelated to the topics we are discussing in class, but it is a criminal procedure issue and a very important one).  After I went through the numbers, one of the students naturally asked–since we were in a comparative criminal procedure class–how the United States numbers compared to the British numbers.  I looked it up–Britain (with 20% of our population) has had 55 police shootings in the past 24 years–i.e., less than two per year.  Of course one of the big differences (at least to me) is the difference in gun laws between the two countries.  Almost none of the police here in Britain carry guns–because almost none of the civilians are allowed to carry guns.  When a police officer in the United States approaches a suspect, s/he has to always assume the suspect is armed with a gun, which sets a certain dynamic in play before contact even begins.  In Britain, the officer always assumes the opposite.  I don’t think there is the only reason that we have so many more police shootings as a percentage of our population, but it is clearly a significant factor.