In the olden days of policing four decades ago, New York cops sometimes seemed to use citizens for target practice.
Officers shot and killed 93 people in 1971, an average of one every four days, and wounded another 221.
It was standard procedure then for cops to take chancy potshots—sometimes at cars, sometimes from cars–under the old “fleeing felon” firearms protocols. Crime suspects caught plenty of bullets, but so did bystanders. (And to be fair, many more cops were being shot then, as well: 12 were killed and 47 wounded in 1971.)
In 1972, the reform-minded Police Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy ordered officers to hold their fire unless lives were in imminent danger.
The NYPD must do better, Murphy said, urging the department to evolve into a national model of restraint.
By 1974, New York police shootings had plummeted to 41 killed and 80 wounded. Today, cops kill about a dozen people and wound 20 or so each year—still too many, but a vast improvement over the early-1970s Wild West era.
I arrived in New York from Nebraska in 1984 and would soon be working as a Daily News crime reporter. The front-page story that fall was the police shooting of Eleanor Bumpurs, 66, an obese, ailing and emotionally disturbed black woman who was facing eviction from her $100-a-month flat in the Sedgwick Houses in the Bronx. She had been in arrears just four months.
It was a case study in the perils of aggressive police tactics. Officers popped the lock when the paranoid Bumpurs refused to open her door. She was waiting inside with a butcher knife. A team of cops failed to subdue her with plastic shields and other nonlethal alternatives. Feeling at risk, Officer Steven Smith fired two fatal shotgun blasts.
Many New Yorkers were appalled. Smith was part of an elite unit that had been specially trained to deal with disturbed people like Bumpurs.
The officer was indicted for manslaughter but acquitted at trial. The city paid Bumpurs' family $200,000 compensation.
Even cops were unsettled by the case. Over a beer one night, a prominent NYPD captain told me, “We have to do better than that.”
Forty years after Murphy's reforms and 30 after Bumpurs was killed, police protocols have changed again.
There are many more nonlethal tools available to cops today. But the brightest minds in law enforcement say that the best police strategy during these confrontations is simply to “de-escalate”—back away, lower the temperature, reassess, summon a boss.
De-escalation likely would have saved Eleanor Bumpur's life. It might also have saved Eric Garner, the Staten Island cigarette bootlegger throttled by an aggressive cop. And Michael Brown in Ferguson? Perhaps.
The NYPD Patrol Guide clearly states, “The primary duty of all members of the service is to preserve human life.”
We can parse the relative blame of people like Bumpurs, Brown and Garner. But these fatal confrontations must be viewed as systematic law enforcement failures.
We have to do better.
David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) is a contributing editor of The Crime Report and co-editor of Crime & Justice News. A veteran police reporter, he writes The Justice Story for the New York Daily News and is a 2014 fellow with the Fund for Investigative Journalism. He welcomes readers' comments.