Why it’s impossible to calculate the percentage of police shootings that are legitimate
Radley Balko reports in the Washington Post:
There’s been much talk this week about a new study from Harvard economics professor Roland G. Fryer Jr. on racial bias in police shootings.Much of the coverage has focused on the study’s surprising-to-some conclusion that racial bias doesn’t factor into police use of lethal force, at least in the city of Houston and at least once the officer has stopped a civilian. There have also been some interesting critiques from (among others) Rajiv Sethi, Ezekiel Kweku and Dara Lind. But the most pertinent flaw in the study (which Fryer has tried to explain, I think unsatisfactorily) is the same flaw in any study that relies on police reports: It relies on police reports.
We want to reform policing. But we want those reforms to be informed, based on good data. The problem is that nearly all the data we have on incidents involving police officers using lethal force comes from reports written by police officers, and nearly all of those reports were written by the officers who were actually involved in those incidents.
The current law on when police officers may use lethal force allows for what critics (like me) would say is far too much discretion. It doesn’t account for police officers who needlessly escalate a situation and then have no choice but to use lethal force due to the circumstances they created. It doesn’t account for mistakes made by police officers themselves that might have caused an officer to reasonably believe a suspect posed an imminent threat. It doesn’t account for police officers giving contradictory commands, then shooting someone for misinterpreting them.
For the purpose of the discussion, let’s break shootings and killings by police into three categories: incidents that were illegal and unnecessary, incidents that were legal and necessary, and incidents that were legal but unnecessary. If you’re asking whether current laws and policies allow for too many police shootings, looking at how many shootings are justified under current law and policy is just question begging. It’s that last category — legal but unnecessary — that we want to explore. Unfortunately, it’s also a category that is plagued by subjectivity and the simple fact noted above: Most of the data we have comes from police reports themselves.
If we were to compile statistics on, say, medical mistakes in an effort to make policies that would improve the state of medicine, we wouldn’t get all of our data from written statements by the accused doctors or hospitals. If we wanted to compile data on conflicts of interest in politics, we wouldn’t rely on members of politicians to self-report and adjudicate when their vote may have been influenced by a campaign donation. But this is essentially what we do with shootings by police officers.
The argument here is not that there’s something uniquely untrustworthy about cops. The argument is that almost every police officer who has just shot and killed someone will defend his or her decision to kill. It’s human nature. It could be because the killing was entirely justifiable. It could be because the officer wants to believe it was justifiable. It could be because the officer knows it wasn’t justified, but fears the consequences.
Personally, I suspect that a high percentage — well more than half — of shootings by police are both legal and justified. I also suspect that nearly all cops who have just shot and killed someone truly believe that their actions were justified. That is, I suspect that the percentage of cases in which cops knowingly covered up a bad shoot is pretty small. But I also think it’s safe to say that the percentage of shootings by police that most of the public would find troubling, unnecessary or unjustifiable is far below the 99 percent or higher of cops that are cleared in these cases.
But the preceding paragraph is loaded with hedges like “suspect” and “think” for a reason. On a macro level, these details are almost unknowable. And that’s a huge problem.
In too many cases to count now, . . .
Continue reading. There’s a lot more, and it’s worth reading. For example, somewhat later, Balko writes:
But even that 74 percent figure needs more examination. Look at the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, the high profile cases that have spurred the most recent round of protests. In both cases, the deceased was in possession of a gun. In both cases the police claimed that the suspect was reaching for that gun. For FBI data-collecting purposes, both cases would be instances in which police officers used lethal force to defend themselves after an armed suspect went for his gun. Even with the videos, that’s how they’d be counted.
But it’s clear that after being presented with the details of these shootings, a good percentage of the public consider them somewhere between troubling and outrageous. It also seems clear that without those videos (both shot by citizens), few would have questioned either shooting at all. I asked The Post’s Wesley Lowery about the two cases. He said that the Post’s project would likely count both incidents as having an “undetermined” threat, but only because we have video. Without the video, The Post would likely have classified them as an “attack in progress.” That should at least have us asking questions about what other cases among that 74 percent we would be rethinking had there been video.
I can think of several cases we’ve covered here at The Watch that illustrate this problem:
- Lori Jean Ellis was gunned down in her own home when three police officers showed up in the middle of the night to serve a series of warrants for petty crimes. The police officers claimed they killed Ellis when she fired at them with a “high-powered rifle,” and claimed to have seen a muzzle flash, heard a loud boom, and witnessed smoke coming from the barrel. In truth, the only gun in Ellis’ home was a pellet gun, and the crime lab couldn’t even get it to fire. Yet for the purposes of data collection, Lori Jean Ellis would be listed as an armed suspect who fired a gun at police.
- Ernest Russell, Jr. was also killed in his own home during a misdemeanor gambling raid. The police claimed to have warned Russell over a dozen times that they were cops, and that he should drop his weapon and raise his hands. But police body cam video shows that Russell was killed less than five seconds after the first officer entered his home. They did find a handgun near Russell’s body, but it hadn’t recently been fired, and even lacked any of Russell’s trace DNA. Between the cowboy, unprofessional raid tactics, the disproportionate use of force for a misdemeanor crime, the fact that Russell was taken by surprise, and the vast chasm between the police report and the body cam video, I think most people would consider Russell’s death at the hands of police to unnecessary and preventable. Many would probably consider it an outrage. Yet for purposes of collecting statistics, Ernest Russell, Jr. too would be a suspect who was killed after confronting police officers with a gun.
- The same goes for Julian Betton. He was nearly killed when an anti-drug task force battered down his door over a couple of $50 pot sales to an informant. The police initially claimed Betton fired at him. Crime lab testing showed his gun hadn’t been fired. The police claim they loudly knocked and announced themselves several times before battering down Betton’s door. Surveillance video shows they never knocked. The video lacks sound, but it indicates that even announcement was unlikely, several would have been impossible. The video clearly shows that the police violated the knock and announce rule. Betton survived (barely). But had he died, he too would have been an armed suspect killed by police after confronting them with a gun. The fact that the police broke the law and battered down his door over a small amount of pot wouldn’t matter.
- Jason Wescott was also killed in his own home after an informant told police there was pot inside. Wescott had actually been confronted months earlier by an armed intruder who had previously threatened him. Wescott’s family says that when he reported the incident to police, they told him to get a gun and be prepared to use it if the intruder returned. Instead, it was the police who broke into Wescott’s home. When he reached for his gun, they killed him. They found about $5 worth of marijuana. It was later revealed that the informant whose tip was the sole basis for the raid had a history of lying. The informant himself later said the police had prodded him to exaggerate in order to secure probable cause for the raid. I think most people would find Jason Wescott’s death to be unnecessary and preventable. Many would find it outrageous. But for statistical purposes, he too would be an armed suspect killed by police officers after confronting them with a gun.
- Marcus Cass was shot and killed by police as they raided his pawn shop for what was basically an administrative crime. A federal appeals court determined that Cass likely thought the store was being robbed, and chastised the police for the way they handled they raid. But for statistical purposes, Cass was killed after confronting police with a gun.
- Gonzalo Guizan was killed during a volatile police raid on the home of Ronald Terebesi after a prostitute reported Terebesi had been using cocaine. Guizan was visiting at the time of the raid. Police claimed Guizan, who was unarmed and had no criminal record, attacked them as they broke into the house and threw flash grenades. It seems highly unlikely that an unarmed man with no record decided to attack a heavily armed team of raiding cops. It seems far more likely that Guizan mistook them for criminal intruders, and was trying to get out. The courts refused to grant the officers immunity in lawsuits filed by both Terebesi and Guizan’s estate. Yet for statistical purposes, Guizan would be counted as a man who was killed after attacking police officers.
These stories are just from the last year or so (or at least just came to light or were resolved in the last year). But I could run off a long list of other shootings from previous years. There have been countless drug raids in which a suspect pulled a gun on police, but in which it’s entirely plausible that the suspect had no idea the armed intruders in his or her home were police. In some cases, the police were in the wrong house. No matter: For statistical purposes those were armed suspects. I think of the Jonathan Ayers case, in which a drug task force, armed and dressed in undercover garb, ran at an innocent pastor as he sat in his car at a convenience store. The terrified Ayers sped away in his car, lightly brushing one of the officers in the process. They opened fire and killed him. In the police report, he attacked them with a deadly weapon — his car. I think of the Kathryn Johnston case, in which the police invented an informant and lied on a search warrant affidavit before breaking down the 92-year-old woman’s door. She was innocent. When she met them with the broken old revolver she used to scare off intruders, they shot and killed her. In the police report, she was an armed suspect who threatened them with a gun.