Policing & Lethal Force
Terry H. Schwadron
Nov. 14, 2022
Amid all the elections reports and commentary highlighting a general complaint about crime and police cutbacks, you may not have seen that The Washington Post had offered an interesting investigation of non-fatal police shootings.
If you have listened to Republican candidates talking about perceived crime surges, you would conclude that violent crime is all around us, that police find themselves nearly helpless, that huge infusions of new cash and police officers are the only way to address the issue, and that lawlessness has something to do with Democratic ideas about interfering with police, too-lax imprisonment, new bail laws, lenient district attorneys and “Bidenomics.”
Not only were the numbers used skewed to hype crime fears, but it also turns out police have been using guns more on the street, stirring racial and protest over the individual cases even as the same communities beg for more police protection. It is not wrong that some categories of crime are up in selected places year over covid year, but violent crime categories generally remain less than five or ten years ago.
A new Washington Post analysis, done in partnership with the Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program, followed up on previous efforts in 2015 to fill out what the FBI never did have fully — a determination of how many people are shot and killed by police.
From a variety of news and other sources, The Post had found evidence of 2,137 police shooting victims — or 1,000 more fatal shootings than reported by the FBI. The FBI practice is to accept voluntary reporting by police agencies themselves. The Post built and maintained a database showing that shooting rates haveremained about the same each year.
Last month, The Post reported on a similar effort looking at annual non-fatal shootings. Among the 156 police departments nationwide that recorded five or more deadly police shootings between 2015 to 2020, there were an additional 1,609 who had been shot and wounded. Or: For every five people shot and killed by police in these departments, four others were shot and survived.
There are about 18,000 police departments of all size in the country for federal, state or local authorities.
As a Post editorial on the subject intones, “The figures provided only a narrow look at what is clearly a much wider problem. That there are no good numbers, and no real scrutiny of nonfatal police shootings hinders the ability to devise strategies to address — and hopefully reduce — the use of lethal force.”
What Was Learned
It is not clear whether police had shot to wound rather than kill in these cases, but one important takeaway is that lethal force is an active, untracked phenomenon. Another is that we are unwilling as a society to dig in to determine the complexities.
From the police point of view, they are resorting to use of weapons because the threat on the street to the innocent and to themselves as enforces requires it. When gangs and others add to availability of arms, so do police.
From the point of view of those being shot, police shootings represent reasons to constrain law enforcement reacting in ways that may sometimes appear disproportionate to the crimes involved. Clearly, the perception from minority communities have leaned on claims of shootings are reflecting racial bias.
And among the rest of us who see both courts further loosening open-carry gun laws and hardened positions and fear of crime everywhere, who notice that Jan. 6 insurrectionists included more than a sprinkling of law enforcement officers willing to storm the Capitol, there is simply a lot of head-scratching about how this is going to get better.
In other words, police as lethal forces are meeting criminals as lethal forces while our debate in Washington is about how fervently to protect gun ownership and policing slogans rather than solve any problem about crime.
Regardless of the debate, what remains true is that only a handful of states have requirements to collect and report on shootings, fatal or not. Without full release of information from the National Use-of-Force Data Collection, established in 2015, we lack sufficient public understanding of the threats and the responses to create appropriately responsive policies.
Indeed, The Post analysis shows that nearly all those shot and lived were men, many of whom had struggled with addiction, homelessness and poverty. At least 1 in 5 who were shot was experiencing mental health crises, and racial disparities were pronounced, with Black individuals disproportionately affected, The Post said,
Generally, the report found through interviews that survivors faced debilitating injuries, trauma and legal problems. And of the 3,746 fatal and nonfatal shootings examined by The Post, there were 246 in which at least one officer was shot; in those, 28 officers were killed and 279 were wounded.
Politics and Lethal Force
If our politicians were serious about crime, you would think they would want more complete information.
You would think states would want to know that use of police force, fatal or not, would undergo review towards developing strategies. What is missing is the What-Can-We-Learn-From-This approach to crime and reliance on lethal force.
What we have is a reality now of deadly force on both the criminal and police sides of the street. It requires a closer look to understand whether there are categories of response in which weapons should remain sheathed, or whether we so want to stamp out crime that we are willing to wound or kill even in cases in which weapons never had been a presenting issue.
Further, successful use of deadly force obviously eliminates the imminent threat but does not address the array of social problems that are prompting the next one. Ask the police in my Harlem neighborhood of New York City, and you’ll hear the repeated refrain that drug use and drug dealing is at the heart of virtually all street crimes. In my own precinct, we got a deployment of extra cops recently — under a program to protect against shoplifting.
The Post made the point that because it had examined incidents only in the deadliest departments, the tally of those wounded by police is undoubtedly far higher. The New York Police Department had 87 nonfatal shootings compared with 43 fatal ones. In Chicago, police wounded 63 people and killed 38. The Atlanta Police Department wounded three times as many people as it killed: 40 nonfatal police shootings since 2015, compared with 13 fatal shootings in that period.
Racial disparity in nonfatal shootings was more pronounced than in fatal shootings across the departments studied, The Post reported. Black residents accounted for 16 percent of the combined population policed by these departments, but they represented 30 percent of those fatally shot by police and 41 percent of those shot and wounded. Officers in this review shot nearly the exact number of Black people as they did White people — although these communities have nearly three times as many combined White residents as they do Blacks.
Police are being trained to anticipate gun threats. Whether that is a good policy is something that begs for more information than slogans can provide.