police shootings

All posts tagged police shootings

One of the more popular aspects of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is the provision that will mandate body cameras for all federal police officers and provide federal funding for state and local police forces who purchase them. We have seen so much body camera footage over the past few years that it is easy to assume that they are already ubiquitous, but as of 2020, only 45% of police departments used them. The George Floyd legislation could help with this; although the federal police officers that it directly affects only make up 20% of the 700,000 police officers nationwide, the funding the legislation provides should spur widespread adoption of these devices throughout the country. Still, it would be better if the legislation went further: Congress could, for example, withhold all federal funding from local police agencies that do not mandate body cameras within a specific time period; the George Floyd Act uses this tactic to force local police to ban chokeholds and forgo no-knock search warrants.

Although body camera footage has been integral to exposing some of the worst instances of police misconduct, and has helped to exonerate other police officers when their use of force is justified, its use is still controversial. A recent Washington Post article argues that without proper disclosure rules, body cameras could be ineffective in deterring police conduct. The Economist came to a similar conclusion after reviewing the varied disclosure rules of different states, from North Carolina and Louisiana, which (along with nine other states) require a court order to disclose body camera footage to Ohio, which makes the footage part of the pubic record. Swift and relatively easy disclosure policies are critical to enhance the effectiveness of body camera footage.

The Post article cites a meta-study which found that there was not yet conclusive evidence that wearing body cameras reduced the instances of police inappropriate use of force. However, the lack of conclusive evidence is likely because body cameras are still relatively new devices, and thus their effect on police conduct (and their use in trials and disciplinary proceedings) has not yet registered. And although we have become sadly accustomed to seeing video footage of police shootings, the vast majority of police lethal use of force cases did not have video footage–of the the 6,329 lethal police shootings since 2015 that are tracked in the Washington Post database, only 842 (13%) could be confirmed to have body cameras.

The meta-study did find a number of beneficial effects of body cameras, such as a lower rate of use-of-force complaints against police officers–this could mean that officers with body cameras actually use less force, or that those who interact with police are less likely to file baseless complaints against officers when the interaction is caught on video. Either effect would be an improvement. And body camera footage can be valuable for prosecutors in courtroom as well, especially in drunk-driving cases to prove the defendant’s inebriated state.

But perhaps the best argument in favor of universal use of body cameras is the increased transparency they provide. Without the existence of body cameras–and the swift disclosure of their footage–community members and the public at large will remain uncertain about whether the killing was justified, especially in today’s political climate in which many communities strongly distrust the police. This point is highlighted by a recent shooting in Minneapolis by federal agents in which there was no video evidence of the event. The police officers reported that the victim refused to comply with police orders and then pulled a handgun. Toshira Garraway, the founder of Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, responded: “We no longer have faith in just believing the narratives that the police give us. They have forfeited their right to just tell us a story. We need facts, and the fact is any video footage.” The transparency that police body cameras create can not only provide evidence of police misconduct when it does occur, but also help to re-build legitimacy to police actions when they are justified.

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.