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  • Writer's pictureJerry Ratcliffe

Why we can minimize, but not eliminate, bad police shootings

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

Another police shooting of a Black man that looks bad. Another week in America.

The shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, WI sparked three nights of protests/riots (depending on your perspective) and two subsequent deaths, likely at the hands of 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse. On the heels of the awful George Floyd death, twitter went into overdrive.

Numerous commentators comparing the treatment of Rittenhouse with Blake, and there is something in that. But I was surprised to see so many college professors I know sharing versions of this theme. As any statistics professor should have taught them, a study with n=2 where both cases are exceptionally unrepresentative isn’t insightful. It’s cherry-picking. Judging the entire police service based on extreme and egregious outliers is like typifying all white people based on the behavior of Ted Bundy and Charles Manson.

But that’s a minor point. What is more concerning among my friends in the progressive movement is the lack of a realistic and concrete goal for the current activism. Where are police chiefs and communities going to drive their departments if there is no clarity on the destination?

For example, the Black Lives Matter movement seeks “freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension, all people” which is laudable and fully supportable, but also absent specifics. At the sharp end of the criminal justice system does this mean zero police shootings of unarmed people? No police shootings at all? Zero bad police incidents anywhere, anytime?

I have never heard a clear and definitive answer that is realistic and could be operationalized as a metric. And any consultant will tell you goals have to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound). So why is a zero goal unrealistic? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

Lots of people and lots of guns

In the US, police make direct contact with the community over 75 million times a year. I suspect the Bureau of Justice Statistics report significantly undercounts the real interaction figure, but we can go with it for now. And according to another BJS report there are a little over 700,000 police officers in general-purpose law enforcement agencies. When you add in another roughly 100,000 in federal law enforcement, and 60,000 special jurisdiction police (campus, parks etc.), policing in the US has 860,000 officers.

To put all this in perspective, a police population the size of Indianapolis interacts with the most heavily armed population in the world (with 120 guns for every 100 people), more than 75 million times a year. Do we really think that occasionally, some of those interactions will not result in fatal shootings?

And they do, about 1000 times a year (according to the Washington Post database). About 60% of people shot and killed by police are armed with a gun. That is 11 gun-armed people every week in America.

About 60% of people shot and killed by police are armed with a gun. That is 11 gun-armed people every week in America.

In 2019, 399 people not armed with a gun were shot and killed nationally. Only 55 were classified as “unarmed”, so many of them were wielding something. For example, in 2019, 142 had a knife, 7 had an ax, 7 a sword, and 27 had "toy weapons". The last is clearly not lethal, but also a misnomer. Replica is often more accurate. In the heat of the moment it is hard to tell the difference, and mistakes can be made (we also don’t know how many people armed with toy weapons are not shot and killed by police when police make an on-the-spot correct assessment). Look, its difficult to tell the difference at the best of times.

If we exclude police shooting victims armed with a gun, knife, samurai sword, sword, Taser, ax, machete, nail gun, bean-bag gun, or toy weapon, we are left with 203 shootings in 2019 that could be considered unnecessary or unwarranted or egregious. Choose your term based on your particular bias. That is a rate of 2.7 unwarranted shooting deaths per million police-community contacts. (and yes this would change if you could compile a different list of weapons, or weapon-type items).

Unnecessary or egregious shootings

Of these 203, what is the race/ethnicity distribution? 36 were Hispanic, 43 were Black, and 84 were White (40 are ‘other’ or the information was not available). Based on police-community interaction rates, that translates to 4.6 unnecessary police shootings per million contacts for Black people, 3.7 for Hispanic people, and 1.6 for white people.

Given we do not seem to have protests/riots when white or Hispanic people get shot, let’s focus on the Black fatalities. 14 were unarmed, or if we expand the definition as I do, there were 43 demonstrably unnecessary shootings of Black victims. Every shooting is a tragedy, but these especially so, for victims, families and communities. Should they be reduced to zero? Absolutely. But is that a realistic goal? These occur at a rate of less than one in a million overall police-community interactions.

To expect a national police population the size of Indianapolis not to have some people who are racist, trigger-happy, short-tempered, or some people who are sometimes thoughtless is spectacularly unrealistic. Should some of those folks be in policing? Definitely not, though it is difficult to identify them before they join the force, and we lack evidence around which factors predict egregious behavior. But equally, to expect a population the size of Indianapolis not to make grave errors every now and again during 75 million contacts is also unrealistic.

A goal of zero police shootings is impossible in America for the foreseeable future. There are too many armed citizens, and some of them like to shoot at police.

A goal of zero police shootings is impossible in America for the foreseeable future. There are too many armed citizens, and some of them like to shoot at police.

A goal of zero unnecessary police shootings is laudable and supported by every police officer I know but is probably unrealistic as well. Minimization of this number is clearly important, but with 75 million interactions between armed police and a heavily armed citizenry, bad events are going to happen.

We could reduce the number of police-community contacts, and there is some merit in this idea. There are lots of incidents that police would prefer to not attend, that would be better dealt with by social workers and mental health professionals. But equally there is evidence that some proactive policing strategies reduce crime, and some commentators have acknowledged the dangers to people in high crime communities of under-policing.

So what should we do?

First, all police shootings should be swiftly, thoroughly and transparently investigated by an external agency. Mistakes should be acknowledged and learned from, and officers involved in egregious shootings should be prosecuted (such as in the Walter Scott case).

Second, there should be a reinvigorated national effort to examine the circumstances of police shootings to learn situational and policy lessons, much like the NTSB does with aircraft safety.

Third, can we at least acknowledge that the rampant and largely unrestricted gun ownership level in the country affects police-community contacts? 48 police officers were killed by gunfire in 2019. Reducing the number of guns in America would improve safety for both the community and law enforcement.

Fourth, it is said that a police chief is always one bad car stop away from losing their job. Usually while they are asleep at home. Firing police chiefs after a bad shooting may sometimes be warranted, but it is more often a performative gesture that can remove progressive police leaders, introduces more uncertainty to the police department, and delays meaningful change.

And as Peter Moskos has pointed out, current de-escalation policies can sometimes prolong an incident, or have inadvertently allowed them to escalate. Certainly worth examining these policies from an evidence-based perspective.

Finally, there is a vital role for communities in laying out the terms of how they would like their police department to work in their communities. Reducing violence can mean understanding that more focused and active policing may help reduce community problems, but also increase the potential for errors of judgement.

And with all this in mind, we should also consider managing public perception that while unnecessary police shootings are rare, they are not going to disappear. And that is where there is a role for both the media, and progressive commentators. If not, communities are going to have unrealistic expectations, and be perpetually disappointed. This will negatively impact community and police morale and hinder positive progress.

We can only minimize, not eliminate, bad shootings.

Believe me, I wish the situation were different, but we for now we can at best minimize, not eliminate, bad shootings. To imply otherwise is unrealistic, disingenuous, and damaging to police community relations. None of which will help high-crime neighborhoods that need government-provided security the most.

Some caveats for this blog post:

We don’t know the circumstances of most of these shootings. Some shootings of armed people could have been unnecessary, and some shootings of unarmed people could have been justified. Also, the WaPo data set is not perfect, but it is commonly used, freely available, and better than nothing. Your distinction for what constitutes a lethal threat to someone might differ from mine, such as the five people in possession of a baseball bat or two people with screwdrivers that I didn’t include as potentially lethal. A car thief tried to stab me with a screwdriver once. It felt potentially lethal.

Also, I changed the title of this blog on 1st October 2020.

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