Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Police Killing

One writer who has been covering the police abuses beat for a long time is libertarian economist Alex Tabarrok. (On "Get Out of Jail Free" cards here; police union privileges here.) He has a data-rich post today about police killing, drawing on When Police KIll, a 2017 book by criminologist Franklin Zimring. Tabarrok's main takeaway is one I very much agree with: the way to reduce police shootings is to treat them like airplane crashes. Safety experts say that blaming individuals is generally pointless; what you need to do is to change the system. So what would a systems approach to reducing police killings look like?

One strange fact is that  while most violent crime is committed by young men, the victims of police shootings are not younger than the average American. Why would that be?

The main reason for this appears to be that a disproportionate share of police killings come from disturbance calls, domestic and non-domestic about equally represented. A majority of the killings arising from disturbance calls are of people aged forty or more.
The tendency of both police and observers to assume that attacks against police and police use of force is closely associated with violent crime and criminal justice should be modified in significant ways to account for the disturbance, domestic conflicts, and emotional disruptions that frequently become the caseload of police officers.
This suggests that training officers to de-escalate these "disturbance calls" might help a lot in reducing violence.

A slight majority (56%) of the people who are killed by the police are armed with a gun and another 3.7% seemed to have a gun. Police have reason to fear guns, 92% of killings of police are by guns. But 40% of the people killed by police don’t have guns and other weapons are much less dangerous to police. In many years, hundreds of people brandishing knives are killed by the police while no police are killed by people brandishing knives. The police seem to be too quick to use deadly force against people significantly less well-armed than the police.  . . .

A major factor in the number of deaths caused by police shootings is the number of wounds received by the victim. In Chicago, 20% of victims with one wound died, 34% with two wounds and 74% with five or more wounds. Obvious. But it suggests a reevaluation of the police training to empty their magazine. Zimring suggests that if the first shot fired was due to reasonable fear the tenth might not be.
I have wondered about this myself; sometimes it turns out that police have not just emptied their magazines but reloaded and emptied another. That seems completely crazy to me, and speaks of people who are simply out of control. Plus, as our Democratic nominee once asked, "why don't the police shoot people in the leg?" The training that tells them to shoot for the center of mass, military style, might be appropriate when the other guy has a gun or is rushing them with an ax, but is nuts when the other guy is a crazy person vaguely wielding a knife.

Zimring notes that while convicting a few officers of wrongful killing might help in some cities, it is not likely to happen in many jurisdictions. He suggests that cities focus on writing "clear and cautious rules of engagement" and getting police departments to take them seriously. That seems to have become one of the foci of recent reform efforts, so that's all to the good.

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