July 29, 2016
As regular readers of this column know, I like to look for serious research designed to get at the facts behind issues that are grabbing public attention.
Right now, fatal shootings of minority civilians –and assassination of police officers by disturbed individuals – has a large piece of that attention.
Although fatal shootings by officers have always been relatively rare, the wide availability of video cameras has greatly increased their public visibility in recent years. Particularly in cases with minority victims, television news producers have put them on the air.
The Gallup polling organization regularly takes soundings of the views of black and white Americans toward the police and the justice system.
Gallup’s latest survey, taken in June and July, finds that roughly half of African-Americans believe that they are treated unfairly by the police, a result Gallup calls “almost identical to last year”. Three-fourths of whites, on the other hand, feel that minorities are treated fairly.*
These are the perceptions. What are the facts?
Each of the 18,000 police agencies in the United States is responsible to a local or state elected official. Most have similar policies regarding the use of force. For example:
– Getting control of a resisting person should be done with the minimum amount of force, escalating only when necessary.
– Deadly force is authorized only if the officer reasonably believes that the subject represents an immediate threat of great bodily harm or death to the officer or to other innocent persons.
– The use of deadly force is never authorized when the subject is merely fleeing.
Roland Freyer is widely acknowledged as one of America’s brightest young ecomomists. He is the recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant”. A professor at Harvard University, he has dedicated his career to studying ways to close the racial achievement gap. He is also the youngest African-American to be granted tenure at Harvard.
So when he and his students assembled data on police use of force from police reports in ten police departments, the world paid attention. What got most of this attention was what Prof. Freyer called “the most surprising result of my career”: he found no evidence of racial bias in police shootings of civilians. In fact, officers were more likely to fire without being physically attacked when the suspect was white. And black and white civilians involved were equally likely to be carrying a gun of their own.
But that wasn’t the whole story. Although it received less attention, Prof. Freyer also researched the use of non-lethal force by officers in the ten cities. And there he did find significant racial differences. People of color were 18 percent more likely to be shoved against a wall than whites, 18 percent more likely to be pushed to the ground and 16 percent more likely to be handcuffed without being arrested. And that was just the data as reported by the police. In data from federally conducted surveys of civilians who had interactions with the police, the reported racial disparities in use of force were even greater.
But that is not the only study of its kind.
A little over a year ago, the Washington Post collected all the information it could find from every possible source concerning fatal police shootings of civilians. There has never been a requirement that the 18,000 U.S. local police departments furnish information to the FBI on this subject, and it appears from the Post study that these incidents have been seriously under-reported. The Post researchers found that police agencies were reporting fatal shootings to the FBI as happening at a rate averaging 1.1 per day nationally, but the Post reporters found that the actual number occurring in 2015 was 2.6 per day.
On the other hand, the Post found that “[f]or the vast majority of departments, a fatal shooting is a rare event. Only 306 agencies have recorded one this year, and most had only one.”
Over 80 percent of the victims were armed with “potentially lethal objects”. But among those who were not armed, two-thirds were black or Hispanic.
And police officials who were shown the data were far from indifferent to it. The Post talked to a dozen current or former police chiefs and criminal justice officials, all of whom agreed that much of the carnage arose from “poor policing” and was preventable. However, the Post writers added this caveat:
“Although law enforcement officials say many shootings are preventable, that is not always true. In dozens of cases, officers rushed into volatile situations and saved lives. Examples of police heroism abound.”
Which brings us to a third study, that few have heard of, on police use of non-lethal devices.
Any device considered for use in law enforcement must meet certain tests: it must be instantly accessible, so must be capable of being carried on the officer’s person. It must be absolutely reliable, and work every time. Finally, it must be effective in disabling the subject, no matter how large.
The revolver passes all of these tests, but has been overtaken by the semi-automatic pistol, which affords more shots without reloading.
But pistols are lethal.
The two most commonly used non-lethal devices today are pepper spray and the Taser. Enough officers have been using them, for a long enough time, that studies now exist of their effectiveness in reducing injuies to both officer and suspect.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ.gov), a division of the U.S. Justice Department, churns out research and writings on all kinds of law enforcement issues. In 2011 the Institute published a study of the effects of use by police of these non-lethal weapons.
The research team, led by University of South Carolina Criminology professr Geoffrey Alpert, reviewed police reports of incidents involving any level of “use of force” by officers of Seattle, Miami-Dade , Richland County, South Carolina, Orlando, Fla. And Austin Texas police agencies for several years both before and after the introduction of pepper spray and Tasers.
They found that in Orlando the rate of injury to suspects dropped by 50 percent and officer injuries dropped by 60 percent after introduction of Tasers. The researchers also compared the rate of injuries to both officers and suspects incurred in ground fighting situations by officers from Richland County (Taser-equipped) with that of Columbia, South Carolina (not Taser-equipped). The differences were striking: 9 percent vs. 31 percent.
New non-lethal (or at least less lethal) devices are constantly under development. A California company has introduced “The Alternative”, a device which attaches a hollowed-out round metal ball to the barrel of just about any pistol. When the first shot is fired (and only the first shot) the bullet goes into the ball and propels it to the suspect. It hits hard, but the ball prevents the bullet from penetrating the suspect’s body.
The general public may not be aware of the above studies, but police leadership is.
Is change coming? Most definitely. It will not happen overnight everywhere, but it has started. Following the chokehold death of New Yorker Eric Garner and street protests over the non-indictment of the officers involved, New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton ordered that all officers undergo retraining. “In a democracy there’s a mutual responsibility: there’s a civic responsibility of citizens, working with us, not against us, if you will,” Bratton told the New York Daily News. “When an officer is making an arrest, not to resist. In so many of these instances that we’re dealing with — (there’s) resisting arrest. There is a dual obligation in democracy — the citizens have to obey the law, police officers have to police within the law.”
“We want to talk people into their cuffs,” Lt. Suzanne St. Jacques, NYPD commanding officer for
physical training and tactics, told Yahoo News. “We want to talk them down into compliance, deescalate the situation. … The emphasis right now is the talk down before the takedown.”
Even when enforcing the law gets messy, officers “have to have a thick skin,” said First Deputy Police Commissioner Benjamin B. Tucker, who oversees the police academy. “People will goad you. People will say things to you. Face it — not everybody loves a cop,” Tucker said.
“But even when they don’t like you, you have a responsibility to respect them and leave them with
their dignity even as you do your job.”
And remember The Alternative, the non-lethal gun attachment? One of the first police agencies in the U.S. to try it out on the street will be where much of the public attention all began with the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown: the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department.
* African-American reporting of perceived unfair treatment by police within the 30 days preceding the survey has remained remarkably steady over the past several years, according to Gallup, at 16 to 18 percent of respondents, and such reports “are actually down from reports a decade or more ago.”
is the author of Wounded Warrior, a recently published biography of former governor and Supreme Court justice John Swainson. He is also a retired Ingham County Circuit Court Judge and former legal advisor to Gov. James J. Blanchard.