(Republished with permission from The Force Science Institute)
In the wake of Ferguson and the anti-police firestorm that episode ignited, The Washington Post determined to do what no government agency had done: catalog the essential facts of every on-duty fatal shooting by police in the US in 2015. That exhaustive undertaking, which documents nearly 1,000 firearms deaths at the hands of LEOs for the year, is now completed, and the Post is moving on to 2016 . . .
Here are two links relevant to this important project:
1. The findings of the Post’s investigation, including its unique database, which records a description of each fatality, and a statistical analysis of the core elements involved overall–surely the most comprehensive compilation of such information currently available. CLICK HERE to read it.
2. A commentary on the Post’s findings from National Review magazine, which asserts that the newspaper’s statistics prove that the activist narrative of out-of-control rogue cops wantonly gunning down nonthreatening black males without just cause is plain wrong. CLICK HERE for that full article.
HIGHLIGHTS OF WHAT THE POST FOUND
From the vast quantity of findings posted on the website, the Post highlights what it considers six key “takeaways”:
• In three-fourths of the shootings, “police were under attack or defending someone who was. Of the suspects killed, 28% were “shooting at officers or someone else,” 16% were “attacking with other weapons or physical force, and 31% were pointing a gun.”
• 9% of people shot and killed by police were unarmed. “Unarmed black men were seven times as likely as unarmed whites to die from police gunfire. Overall, more than half of those killed had guns” in their possession, “16% had knives, and 5% attempted to hit officers with their vehicles. Three percent had toy weapons, typically replicas…indistinguishable from the real thing.”
• Mental illness played a role in one-quarter of the shootings and about nine in 10 of the mentally ill killed were armed, “usually with guns but also with knives or other sharp objects.” More than half of the fatalities involved police agencies that “had not provided officers with state-of-the-art training to de-escalate such encounters.”
• One-quarter of the shootings involved suspects fleeing on foot or in a vehicle, “making chases one of the most common scenarios in the data.” About a third of vehicle pursuits that ended up with fatal shots fired began with a traffic stop for a minor infraction.
• Indictments of police officers in shooting cases tripled in 2015, compared with previous years. Although more officers were indicted, “the outcome of such cases improved for officers. Five of the seven cases tried [during the year] ended with the officer acquitted or with a mistrial…. Over the previous decade, one-third of officers charged in shooting cases were convicted of crimes ranging from misdemeanor reckless discharge of a firearm to felony murder.”
• 6% of the fatalities were captured by body cameras, and in more than half the shooting cases in which LEOs were indicted criminally in 2015, “prosecutors cited video evidence against officers” from police or civilian cameras–twice as often as in the previous decade. “The widespread availability of video of police shootings…has been a primary factor in the rising number of indictments of officers,” the Post notes.
In sum, the Post states: “The great majority of people who died at the hands of the police fit at least one of three categories: they were wielding weapons, they were suicidal or mentally troubled, or they ran when officers told them to halt….
For each of its highlighted “takeaways,” the Post supplies detailed case histories, observations by professionals, and supplementary statistics that help to flesh out the finding–much more material to chew through than would occupy mere idle moments.
For the most part, the information is factually and dispassionately presented, although at times, as the National Review points out, the Post’s reputation as a left-leaning journal creeps through. One of the investigative team in a TV interview has said that she believes the findings show that police do disproportionately target black males beyond what seems demographically justified.
WHAT THE FINDINGS MEAN, PER THE NATIONAL REVIEW
The National Review, a politically conservative publication, headlines its commentary on what the Post’s data add up to thusly: “The Numbers Are in: Black Lives Matter Is Wrong about Police.”
The article is authored by staff writer David French, a Bronze Star recipient from military service in Iraq and an attorney specializing in “constitutional law and the law of armed conflict.”
Since Ferguson, French writes, the nation has been “bombarded with assertions that…black Americans risk being gunned down by police simply because of the color of their skin.” But now, data from the Post’s year-long “unprecedented, case-by-case study of police shootings” confirm that: “The police use force mainly to protect human life, the use of force against unarmed suspects is rare, and the use of force against black Americans is largely proportional to their share of the violent crime rate.”
He points out, from the Post’s findings, that “the kinds of shootings that launched the Black Lives Matter movement–white police officers killing unarmed black men–represent ‘less than 4% of fatal police shootings.’ The Post does its best to hype the racial injustice of this statistic, proclaiming that while ‘black men make up only 6% of the US population, they account for 40% of the unarmed men shot to death by police.’
“But that claim,” French insists, “is misleading on a number of counts…. Crime doesn’t break down on neat, proportionate demographic lines. Criminals are overwhelmingly male…and violent criminals are disproportionately black.”
Statistics show, he says, that blacks “commit homicide at close to eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined,” with the “interracial homicide commission gap” even greater among teenage males. While black Americans constitute only about 13% of the population, they represent “a majority of the homicide and robbery arrests.
“Given these disturbing disparities,” French writes, “no rational person would expect police shootings to precisely track with demographics. Police follow crime, and they tend to operate in high-crime areas. It would be alarming if there were statistically significant racial variations in the use of force even after adjusting for crime rate, but the Post’s report doesn’t make this distinction.”
Based on the findings, “the chances of an innocent black man being gunned down by racist cops are vanishingly small,” French concludes. “And that is good news indeed.”
He acknowledges that “the report does highlight areas where law-enforcement agencies could do better–improved training in handling fleeing or mentally ill suspects could save lives, for example–and while police are generally responsible in the use of force, that doesn’t mean that all use of force is lawful. There are individual racist cops, and there are departments that will close ranks behind corrupt colleagues.”
But while conscientious efforts to improve are made, “the Post’s valuable study, fairly read, should defuse national tensions,” French writes.
Unfortunately, in his opinion, it won’t, however. “The [anti-police] narrative is too strong, and too many powerful people have too much to gain by ratcheting up racial tensions. So Black Lives Matter will likely roll on, and still more black Americans will be taught to hate and fear law enforcement, fed on a steady diet of lies….”
While the Post intends to continue its tabulation of fatalities, pressure is on to improve reporting within law enforcement.
According to the Post, fewer than half of the nation’s 18,000 police departments report incidents of fatal shootings by officers to the FBI, which is charged with keeping such statistics. In its search, the Post “documented well more than twice as many fatal shootings [last year] as the average annual tally reported by the FBI over the past decade”–a data flaw FBI Director James Comey terms “unacceptable.”
That agency and the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics have launched efforts to create new systems for better documenting these fatalities.
A senior FBI official has told the Post, “People want to know what police are doing, and they want to know why they are using force. It always fell to the bottom before. It is now the highest priority.”
Our thanks to Atty. Richard Brzeczek, a consultant and expert witness on police practices, for his assistance with this report.