Headline stories of police shootings often feature a gripping narrative, but three officers argue in a new book that news coverage of these cases usually lacks nuance and contextual framing.
Nick Selby, a Dallas-area detective and lead author of “In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians” (CIAI/Calibre Press), says the scoreboard approach to police-involved deaths taken recently by D. Brian Burghart, the Guardian and the Washington Post is inadequate—even though he praises their efforts to address the dearth of data
The Guardian’s prizewinning database “The Counted,” published last year, for example, tallied 1,146 people killed by police in the U.S. in 2015. While the number seems shocking, Selby writes in the book, it fails “to differentiate killings by police who are behaving badly from those in which cops were doing what we want them to do—that is, standing between civilians in danger of losing their lives and those who would take their lives from them.”
Selby is not a police apologist. He says cops who make bad decisions with deadly results must face the consequences, citing the caught-on-video shootings by Officer Jason Van Dyke of Laquan McDonald in Chicago in 2014 and Officer Michael Slager of Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., last year.
“My objective is to be objective,” he writes. “This was not a project I marched into to defend the officers indiscriminately or to exonerate the guilty.”
He says a rigorous national debate about what Americans expect from their law enforcement agencies is long overdue, and he blames police for a circle-the-wagon culture that has reinforced suspicions about their motivations.
Selby and his co-authors, Texas police detective Ben Singleton and Ed Flosi, a retired sergeant from San Jose, Calif., focus on police-involved deaths of 153 unarmed people in 2015. The bulk of the book is made up of thumbnail reviews of each case followed by analyses by the authors.
They conclude that more than nine out of 10 cases featured appropriate use of force.
Selby, who moonlights as a crime-data entrepreneur, spoke with The Crime Report’s David J. Krajicek.
The Crime Report: Your book argues that news tabulations of police shootings “seemed designed to maximize ‘head count.’” Explain.
Nick Selby: What we saw was a lot of attention to the sheer numbers of people who died after confrontations with police – the Guardian’s [database] chief among them – but scant attention to why the police became involved with each individual in the first place. I’m a data guy: My first question was, “How can we throw away the noise to find the signal?” Here’s an example: When Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on military personnel at a Chattanooga recruiting station, you’d be hard pressed to find an average citizen who didn’t agree that police acting to stop that deadly threat were justified. I’m not interested in looking at that case.
What I am interested in is a case like that of Walter Scott, where you’d be hard-pressed to find a reasonable person who thought that officer was justified. I wanted to know how many Walter Scotts are there vs. Muhammad Abdulazeezes.
TCR: Let me stick up for the press. We started these counts because the government resolutely refused to do so. So is this a media problem or a police problem?
Selby: Make no mistake: The media has transformed our national understanding of the need to count. For this I cannot be more grateful. Now the question of what should be counted is more important than ever.
TCR: How did you choose the 153 cases you analyze?
Selby: We brought in data scientists and statisticians from outside law enforcement who helped determine the methodology, and then we began the collection process. We wanted to answer the questions that come to mind from a law enforcement standpoint: What was the subject of the shooting doing? How did the cop find out – through a 911 call, a personal observation? Was the person mentally ill? And do we know he is mentally ill, or do we presume it?
TCR: Why focus only on unarmed civilians?
Selby: We determined that citizens who were unarmed were the most likely group to contain unjustified use of deadly force by the cops—or at least that is the impression of the layman. As cops, we know that unarmed doesn’t mean not dangerous, but this was the best group to start with to maximize our chances of finding unjustified killings.
TCR: And what did you find?
Selby: First, the number of truly unjustified killings is dramatically lower than citizens think, and significantly higher than cops would think. This means that both cops and citizens are being led by narrative, not data.
We also found that police agencies have been uniformly terrible at releasing information and data on officer-involved deaths. That must stop. Don’t tell me about integrity of the investigation. When a citizen dies and we don’t have a chief explaining within the first 48 hours everything he knows, then the public and media are rightfully skeptical. They fill in the blanks.
Finally, we found that 46 percent of those unarmed citizens killed by police in 2015 were suffering from acute mental health crises, or acute narcotic intoxication, or both…I don’t think we want a police force of psychiatrists, but the majority of each agency’s officers ought to be trained in mental health policing, de-escalation and other techniques. This is our single most compelling finding.
TCR: How is your data different from, say, the Washington Post, which tallied about 1,000 police fatalities last year?
Selby: The Post’s excellent coverage focused on all police-shooting deaths. We consider only the deaths of the unarmed, but we also consider non-shooting incidents, which comprised 46 percent of the cases. For example, the Post wouldn’t consider incidents in which someone attacked police and then died of a heart attack while in handcuffs. I want to note, though, that the Post’s analysis of the number of justified incidents is very close to ours, at 90 percent or more.
TCR: Ten percent is still a pretty big number, isn’t it?
Selby: It is. However let’s ask ourselves whether 100 questionable incidents in a nation of 320 million people, in which there are 50 million annual encounters between citizens and the 800,000 police from 18,000 agencies, rises to the level of epidemic that some have claimed. I don’t want to say whether 100 is a “good” number. What I want is an informed conversation about the subject driven by data, not an anecdotal narrative.
TCR: You suggest there is an important difference between a “police-involved” death and a “police-caused” death that is often missed in the media. Explain.
Selby: Police often are called to a scene in which a person is acting violently while overdosing on methamphetamine—kicking people, jumping out of a car, smashing through windows, or even raping someone. In 20 cases last year, this sort of person died of a heart attack after police were called to the scene and handcuffed him. That is a vastly different kind of incident from one in which an officer uses deadly force intentionally against someone who then dies. These cases must be analyzed for the totality of what happened, not just that “the police came and then someone died.”
TCR: How can police do a better job of presenting their point of view after a controversial police-involved death?
Selby: It begins with honesty, transparency and a timely release of information, which includes a timeline, recordings of 911 calls, a narrative, any video. Without that, the public has nothing but the word of police to go on. And as we have seen, police sometimes lie. Not always, not even a lot, according to our research. But consider again the Walter Scott case and the lies that Officer Slager told. That makes it easy for citizens to lose faith in the system. Sunlight is the best cure.
TCR: Your book says average street cops are “caught in the middle” from the lack of good data on police-involved deaths. Explain.
Selby: Most cops try to do the right thing. We know this from the data, and frankly most every would agree, except all but the most vehement activists. When there is a fundamental lack of data available for citizens to understand how they are policed, their narrative comes from cop shows and critical media reporting to fill the void. Data can solve this.
TCR: FBI Director James Comey said again recently that a “viral video effect” has made cops timid, inducing a crime increase in some cities. Do you buy that?
Selby: I think something may be happening, but it’s far too nuanced for a phrase like “viral video effect” to encompass these complex human emotions. Policing involves small and heroic acts every day that never make the news. Have you ever considered the danger inherent in moving a vomiting, spitting intravenous-drug user from a dangerous place, giving them Narcan and bringing them to the hospital?
When their motives, acts and actions are questioned with such deep suspicion, especially when it is based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of what cops do and how they do it, it becomes demoralizing, and cynicism rises. With that comes a lack of desire to communicate, which leads, every 15 years or so, to where we are now: Us vs. them. I will never not come running when someone calls for help, but cynicism may very well make me less likely, in the director’s words, to get out of my car at 2 a.m. for a proactive look at a situation if all I ever get for my troubles are accusations of misconduct.
TCR: You say video evidence was present in just 25 percent of the cases you analyzed. Wouldn’t video support cops who do the right thing?
Selby: My co-authors and I are proponents of body-worn video. Here’s another metric: There were no indictments last year of officers in cases that did not have video. That’s an important metric. We need more officer video in more places right now. It will undoubtedly demonstrate how very good we are, but also it will articulate when we are at our worst.
TCR: Has the U.S. gun culture driven us to a place where cops (and citizens) reach too quickly for a firearm?
Selby: I don’t think so. I do think the latest generation of officers are more tentative about going “hands-on” because they’ve never had a real fist-fight. Kids today grow up differently, and fighting is frowned on culturally. If you’re afraid to get punched in the face, you may tend to reach for tools more rapidly. I think that’s worth study.
TCR: The book advocates more tactical training for cops. Should the U.S. be moving toward the non-lethal, de-escalation tactics more common in Europe?
Selby: We speak in the book about the differences, and while I think direct comparison of European to American models of policing is not very useful, we all fully believe that better de-escalation training, and better understanding of the appropriateness of tactical retreat, is essential to reducing officer-involved deaths.
This is a large part of what we call for with better training for drug and mental health issues. We can quickly reduce by half the number of officer-involved deaths without changing anything about how police use tactics, firearms or deadly force.
TCR: The 250 pages of case-study thumbnails and analyses in the book are striking—numbing, but riveting. What is your takeaway as you consider this list?
Selby: Someone joked that his Cliff’s Notes version of our book would be “Guy took more meth than we thought possible, attacked people, and then his heart exploded. Repeat 100 times.”
My biggest takeaway, other than my pride at my profession for mainly conducting itself with the honor and fairness I had hoped to find, was just how similar are so many avoidable incidents. There are bad, evil people in the world, and they do bad things, and we are lucky to have people willing to stand between them and society—and that, by the way, is the true meaning of the thin blue line, not the implication of protecting our own.
But if we can learn from the events of last year how to better care for those who society has marginalized and left out, we can vastly reduce deaths. Republican and Democratic administrations from JFK onward have pushed care for the mentally ill towards the local communities, which then abdicate their responsibility due to lack of funding and lack of care. One-third of people who come in contact with police suffer from a disability, which our communities are OK with until those people become involved in a police matter.
When they die, it’s considered “a police problem.” That’s not fair to the disabled, it’s not fair to our communities, and it’s certainly not fair to our police.
David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. He writes frequently about crime and justice for TCR, the New York Daily News, Alternet and others. He welcomes readers’ comments.