A police officer is more likely to shoot a civilian in jurisdictions where there is a high rate of gun ownership, and the victim is more likely to die from injuries in places where emergency trauma care centers are located too far from the incident.
In a 50-state study, Daniel Nagin, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, found a direct correlation between rates of household gun ownership and police shootings. According to Nagin, officers in high gun-ownership areas are more likely to suspect that an individual they apprehend is carrying a weapon –even if he isn’t—and make a “split-second” conclusion that their lives are in danger, especially if they have had little training encouraging them to slow down their response time.
Nagin’s research is one of a series of studies published by the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (AAPSS), in a special volume examining the causes and patterns of fatal police shootings across the U.S.
The volume, largely based on data from 2019 and earlier, was completed before this year’s surge in reports of civilians killed while in police custody; but it provides some context to the debate on policing currently transfixing the country.
“Police shootings in America is a solvable problem,” the AAPSS statement accompanying the volume said. “Much of the problem is understandable and some of the solutions can be implemented right now.
“It will require the re-engineering of police-citizen encounters, with a ‘safety first’ priority.”
The AAPSS volume, however, does not focus directly on the institutional racism which today’s police critics argue is the key driver for the disproportional death rate of Black and brown civilians at the hands of police.
“The attribution of blame, incompetence, racism, and other moral defects is more often focused on persons than on systems,” wrote Lawrence W. Sherman, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Policing at Cambridge University and editor of the special volume.
“Fatal police shootings are rare events, with little known about how different officers would deal with such situations. Faced with the same facts, what percentage of officers would shoot, and what percentage would not?”
The AAPSS studies, authored by some of the country’s leading criminologists, offered a variety of recommendations for developing an “evidence-based” approach to policing that could reduce the number of deaths from police use-of-force incidents.
- Stricter and broader applications of “red flag” laws that allow authorities to seize guns from dangerous or vulnerable individuals;
- Screening out potentially problematic police recruits through simulation exercises that reveal how they react in tense encounters; and
- Don’t transfer officers with multiple complaints of misconduct to other precincts where their attitudes towards use of lethal force may be adopted by new colleagues.
The perception by an officer that hesitation in the use of deadly force would result in his own injury from a firearm wielded by a suspect could be considered “rational” in many circumstances, noted Sherman.
He cited research conducted by Franklin Zimring of the UC Berkeley School of Law that showed from 2008-2012 U.S. police were 35 times more likely than German police to be killed in the line of duty.
“It could be proposed…that the internationally high rate at which police kill civilians in the United States is a rational adaptation to the internationally high rates of police dying in the line of duty,” wrote Sherman.
Sherman, who is also Wolfson Professor of Criminology Emeritus at the University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology, observed that the number of civilians killed by U.S. police declined by about 6 percent in 2019 to 933, compared with 2018 and compared to most preceding years “for reasons still unexplained.”
But studies of the underlying patterns of fatal shooting incidents by Nagin and other criminologists revealed that in most cases they were the result of “split-second” calculations by officers who believed their lives were threatened.
While most juries take the officer’s word on that—which is why there have been relatively few convictions for police misconduct—those calculations are often based on a combination of factors that are unrelated to any specific threat.
‘Culture of Urgency’
Research by David Klinger of the University of Missouri-St Louis, shows that a “culture of urgency” prevents police officers from pausing to evaluate the danger and call for additional help.
“The paradox of this culture is that the failure to wait for a sufficient number of police may contribute to raising the danger level of the encounter— for the officer as well as the citizens,” wrote Sherman in a summary of Klinger’s work.
“Often prompted from their radio dispatchers to go on to the next request for police service, officers may feel they do not have time for lengthy negotiations with, or even listening to, some noncompliant citizens they encounter.”
Sherman described it as the pressure on police to meet “production demands.”
That pressure “may compel them to push sensitive discussions with emotionally upset people faster than is wise—with a high risk of that quest for speed backfiring, and guns firing, in any struggle for immediate compliance with police orders,” Sherman wrote.
But more significantly, the perception of imminent danger is reinforced when officers are operating in places where guns are prevalent.
“The greater the proportion of homes with guns, the greater the proportion of people who police shoot to death,” Sherman said in summing up Nagin’s work.
“This finding is consistent with what is called “statistical prediction” theory [which] claims, when applied to this problem, that with more guns in a state, there is a greater chance that each person the police encounter may be carrying a gun.
“In the application of a zero-sum choice, Nagin suggests, the police may shoot more readily to preempt being shot themselves.”
Nagin’s study also found that when there is easier access to “trauma centers”—enhanced versions of Emergency Medicine departments in major hospitals—there is a lower statewide death rate from fatal police shootings.
Those two findings alone suggest that “unnecessary” police shootings can be prevented by using ”red flag” laws —to take guns from vulnerable and dangerous people before they are involved in a conflict that involves law enforcement; by spending money to pay for more doctors and more trauma centers; and by officers transporting the victims of police shootings to those centers.
Sherman wrote that more research is needed on the psychology of officers in crisis situations.
“Most important, who are the people who can avoid shooting without getting shot, or without other harm resulting?”
Several studies in the AAPSS volume addressed the factors influencing police behavior.
Quality of Life Arrests a Predictor of Fewer Shootings
In a study of New York police officers, Greg Ridgeway of the University of Pennsylvania found that officers who had made ten or more misdemeanor arrests were 80 percent less likely to shoot than officers who had made less arrests. But for felony arrests, the opposite was true.
This suggests, according to Sherman, that “those with frequent experience in making ‘quality of life’ arrests, possibly with persons suffering from mental illness, may be used to noncompliance and managing people through words and physical restraint, (while) those who make many felony arrests may expect to find weapons on the arrestees, giving them greater tendencies to make ‘statistical predictions’ in Nagin’s terms.”
Ridgeway also found that officers who had repeated misconduct complaints were three times more likely to shoot than those who did not and, in another striking finding, that African- American officers were three times more likely to shoot than white officers.
“The prediction of more shootings by officers with more misconduct is one that could be dealt with by removing such officers from front-line assignments and removing their firearms,” Sherman wrote. “But the prediction of more shootings by black officers is one that has no obvious application, except perhaps more research to understand it.”
Another study by Philip Atiba Goff of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Hilary Rau of the Center for Policing Equity concluded that using simulations during police training would help identify individuals who are likely to be involved in fatal shootings.
“As in many employment situations, it is much more effective to screen out people who are unsuited to the job than it is to try to increase their suitability once they are hired,” Sherman wrote, noting that simulations testing should accompany the multiple-choice tests and background investigations that are usually standard parts of police training.
Can officers be taught to employ restraint before resorting to deadly force?
According to Sherman, the volume makes clear that the “vague mandate” in many states to provide training in de-escalation skills. should be reinforced by more specific and detailed guidance from police authorities and legislators in areas ranging from gun control to reducing arrests.
“If police deploy minimal resources (and force) to low-harm crimes, and invest more time in preventing and detecting high-harm crimes, there may be reduced risk of violence in citizen encounters over minor crimes,” Sherman wrote.
In unwitting anticipation of today’s fierce debates over defunding the police, Sherman warned, “If the police do not earn the moral right to use that force wisely, day in and day out, the entire basis of the state may be undermined.”
He added: “It follows that even legal shootings pose a risk to both police and state legitimacy.”
The articles in the AAPSS volume are available free of charge for a limited time here.
This summary was prepared by TCR executive editor Stephen Handelman