Experts Plan Major Research Project on Reducing Police Shootings

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Protest march in Baltimore, 2014. Photo by Bruce Emmerling via Flickr

Two decades after Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant, was killed by four New York City police officers who shot at him 41 times in the wrongful belief he carried a gun, a high-level group of experts is concentrating research efforts on a broad array of ideas to attack a problem that is blamed for reducing public trust in police nationwide.

The experts, mostly academics but also including a former top police training director, gathered in Philadelphia to discuss what is known and unknown about killings by police, and to suggest ways of avoiding many of them.

Diallo’s death, which led to a $3 million settlement with New York City and the acquittal for  the four officers involved, was cited several times in the discussion as a seminal event in the modern history of police shootings, often overlooked since attention focused on the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

More directly responsible for the gathering was a study  published last year by Cambridge University criminologist Lawrence Sherman, in which he argued that shootings by police should be year should be viewed as “system crashes” and studied in the same way as analysts looked at aviation crashes, nuclear meltdowns and other rare events, to help prevent their recurrence.

The setting was the University of Pennsylvania headquarters of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (AAPSS), which will devote an issue of its bimonthly publication The ANNALS to the subject of fatal police shootings.

Fifty big U.S. cities were able to cut in half the number of fatal shootings of citizens by police between 1970 and 1985, Sherman wrote in the study. He called the development the “First Great Awakening” on the subject.

There was less attention to the problem as crime rates rose in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Not until the Ferguson case was there a “Second Great Awakening of concern and debate over police-citizen violence,” Sherman wrote.

There have been no reliable government statistics on police shootings. The Washington Post has tried to fill the gap by maintaining a database of police use of lethal force since the Brown killing, publishing statistics showing a “remarkable stability” of such incidents over four years, says criminologist Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University.

The newspaper counted 995 in 2015; 963 in 2016; 987 in 2017; and 995 last year.

About a dozen experts plan to contribute to The ANNALS volume on the subject, which is scheduled for publication next January.

Because some of their research and writing is in progress, observers were asked not to quote from draft papers. Here are some of the main issues being addressed:

Franklin Zimring of the University of California Berkeley is examining the role of different levels of government in the U.S. — federal, state and local — in dealing with what he terms a high rate of “unnecessary killings of civilians by police.” One major question is whether prosecution of police officers should be a main focus of reformers, as distinct from administrative changes within police departments to prevent unwarranted shootings.

David Klinger of the University of Missouri St. Louis is assessing a theory that many police killings of civilians are “normal accidents” that may occur when several police officers become involved with civilians in confined spaces. That is what occurred in New York City’s Diallo case, in which officers mistook Diallo’s wallet for a gun in a dark vestibule and fired dozens of shots, mistakenly thinking that he had injured an officer.

Charles Branas and Paul Reeping of Columbia University, and Sara Jacoby of the University of Pennsylvania are examining the policy in some cities of allowing police to transport victims of violent acts by police and others to hospitals rather than waiting for emergency medical technicians. Quicker action to deal with the injured may mean the difference between life and death. In Philadelphia, about 30 percent of assault victims are taken by police officers to medical care, but many cities don’t permit such action.

Robin Engel and Hannah McManus of the University of Cincinnati will assess the spread and impact of police efforts to de-escalate volatile encounters.

Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina and Scott Wolfe of Michigan State University are examining the results of a test of a “social interaction” training program called “Tact, Tactics and Trust” that was administered to police officers in Tucson, Az., and Fayetteville, N.C.

Christopher Winship of Harvard University and Lisa Holmes of the University of Massachusetts-Boston are assessing the roles of current regulations governing police work and the content of police training in affecting the level of police shootings.Winship notes that the rates of fatal police shootings varies widely across cities, with many in St. Louis and few in Buffalo, for example. For four years, Holmes was Chief of the Bureau of Professional Development at the Boston Police Department, which has beefed up its training for officers handling critical incidents.

Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago is studying how police can improve their handling of incidents involving people with psychiatric and substance abuse disorders. This includes the use of “gun violence restraining orders,” that are already being used in some states to allow the seizure of guns from people judged to be dangerous.

Phillip Atiba Goff of the Center for Policing Equity based at John Jay College of Criminal Justice will assess what scientific methods might be used in “predicting bad policing.”

Gregory Ridgeway of the University of Pennsylvania is looking at the backgrounds of officers involved in shootings to relate which aspects may be more related to involvement in shooting incidents.

Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University is studying the possible relationship between the availability of firearms and incidence of police use of force. He notes, for example that guns are generally more prevalent in southern and western states, and will examine whether there are more shootings by police in those areas.

Lawrence Sherman will look at whether a system of locally-based “extension agents” comparable to the 30,000 already working with the U.S. Department Agriculture on farming issues could be established to work with local governments and private citizens to find ways to prevent police shootings in their areas. Such an effort might be administered by public universities, he suggested.

In his already-published paper, Sherman noted that a disproportionate number of fatal shootings by police officers have occurred in cities with fewer than 50,000 residents, which indicates that research projects must be sure to include “very small communities in order to understand and help prevent the majority of all fatal police shootings.”

See additional reading on the topic in The Crime Report:

Can Police Change their Mindset from Warriors to Guardians? 

Punishing Police Won’t Curb Officer-Involved Shootings

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.


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