Civilian shootings by law enforcement officers in Houston’s Harris County this year have dropped to 22, a 25-year low, the Houston Chronicle reports. Ten of the shootings were fatal, including that of a 19-year-old accused of prying open a school’s vending machine and threatening the officer. Activists and police leaders say the decline is due to policy changes, increased public awareness, the recent acquisition of Taser stun guns by several departments, and the Houston Chronicle’s investigative reports on the issue.
Chief Harold Hurtt, who took over in March, has made use-of-force policy a top priority in part because of the 2003 shooting deaths of two unarmed teenagers. In those incidents, one officer was indicted on a murder charge and the other was fired, though he got his job back on appeal. “Normally, prosecutors argue there’s a deterrent effect to aggressive prosecution,” said Joe Owmby of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “We’re hoping that has had some effect.” In 2004, the Houston Police Department, the largest local law enforcement agency in the county, has had 10 shooting incidents, the fewest on record since 1979, according to a Chronicle analysis of data from the District Attorney’s Office. “I’m very, very happy,” said Randall Kallinen, president of the Harris County American Civil Liberties Union. “But in Phoenix, (police) shootings went down after the Tasers were purchased, but went up again the next year. We have to look at what this one year means.” Eight of those shot in 2004 were described in official reports as being unarmed. Two others were carrying screwdrivers – including a young man shot in one of the year’s most controversial cases.