A Plea for Accurate Data On Police Use of Force

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One year ago, four Dallas police officers and a rapid transit officer were killed in an ambush. A critical piece of former Army veteran Micah Johnson’s motivation for the shooting apparently was his anger over the killings of several African-American men at the hands of white police officers around the U.S., criminologist Alex Piquero of the University of Texas at Dallas writes in the Dallas Morning News. “If we are to try to make sense of the Dallas ambush and the terrible events that precipitated it over the years, it is important to know how often and why police use force,” Piquero says. “We must better understand the frustrations perceived and experienced by communities and the police. Officers are sometimes called to tense situations and attacked by citizens. But we also have found that officers who struggle with impulse control in other areas of their lives, such as finances or relationships, are more prone to use violence in their jobs.”

Piquero reviews what is known about many of these issues, including that the “use of force” includes a wide range of actions, that most officers don’t go on patrol thinking they will be using force, and that various factors influence when police use force and the severity of that force. Despite much attention given to the killings of police officers by civilians, with the exception of the years 2011 and the 9/11 attacks, the number of such fatalities has been steadily decreasing since the early 1970s. “It may be time to get past the divisive views that cops are running rampant using force or that citizens hate cops, as neither narrative is constructive or based in factual evidence,” Piquero says, adding that, “We live in an age when 140 characters and 20-second video clips capture our imagination, for good and for bad. Perceptions about police and citizens should be based on the most accurate and available information.”

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