If cops charged with fatal shootings rarely get convicted, is there a better way of dealing with such incidents before they happen? According to a study published this month in the Annual Review of Criminology, there is.
Despite efforts to hold police accountable for their actions in a flurry of court cases since the controversial 2014 Ferguson, Mo. shooting of Michael Brown, there is little evidence to show that such legal efforts to “blame” individual officers are effective, writes Lawrence W. Sherman of Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology.
Instead, he argues, “there is far greater evidence that fatal police shootings can be reduced by re-engineering policy systems than by trying (with little chance of success) to change the legal immunity of police officers or the behavior of juries.”
Sherman suggests that the key to changing police behavior is to look at officer-involved shootings as a failure of the systems that train and guide police to handle and deal with confrontations.
Such tragic incidents should be considered “system crashes,” whose causes should be studied in the same way analysts examine aviation crashes, nuclear meltdowns and other relatively rare events with the aim of preventing them from happening again.
Shifting from a “blame culture” to a “learning culture” allows policymakers, police managers and researchers to examine “not only who, if anyone, was at fault, but also what processes went wrong and how we can fix them,” writes Sherman.
The study contrasts how police forces in two different cities dealt with violent incidents: the Nov. 22, 2014 killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland; and a late 2015 incident involving a man with a knife in a Camden, NJ restaurant.
In the Cleveland case, Rice was killed when officers responded to a report of a male pointing a pistol, which turned out to be fake, at people in a city park. Although the original caller said the pistol was likely to be fake and the male was “probably a juvenile,” the dispatcher never informed police of either observation. Moreover, the officer who shot Rice had a record of emotional instability, and neither of the police officers on the scene administered first aid—adding to the cascade of “system failures” that resulted in an innocent boy’s death.
During the Camden incident, police created a “ring” around the suspect until they could get close enough to immobilize him with a Taser—following specific guidelines they were given by Camden Police Chief J. Scott Thompson of how to de-escalate potentially violent confrontations.
The fact that Camden police were operating according to system guidelines designed to reduce fatal shootings prevented the incident from ending in the kind of tragedy witnessed in Cleveland, Sherman noted.
But departments are unlikely to be motivated to change their guidelines and training when police shootings are turned into polarizing events, he said.
Concentrating on punishment “will fail to reduce the killings of either citizens or police,” Sherman observed. “Although there is research evidence that such punishment has been and can be effective, it is difficult to achieve and has rarely worked without other strategies to support it.”
By treating police shootings as “system crashes,” police, city authorities and community residents can be prevented “from being consumed entirely by the urge to identify enemies,” he wrote. “That insulation may open the door to calm reflection on the problem by all parties concerned.
“The great importance of achieving justice for its own sake does not make punishment the only or best way to save lives.”
And he added that it was particularly relevant to smaller communities, where such a “learning culture,” is most needed. In 2015, for example, over half of the 986 fatal shootings involving police occurred in cities with fewer than 50,000 residents.
In smaller communities, where approval of police is high, juries are likely to accept an officer’s defense that he or she was acting according to departmental procedures or training.
“Future research,” he wrote. “Must therefore include very small communities in order to understand and help prevent the majority of all fatal police shootings.”
The full study can be downloaded here.
Readers’ comments are welcome.