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Posted 12/14/15


The Philadelphia story, and its implications for urban policing

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. On May 14, 2013, Philly.com, a website affiliated with the Philadelphia Inquirer, rocked the “city of brotherly love” with a post that questioned why Philadelphia cops were shooting more citizens – they shot 52 persons in 2012, seventeen more than in 2011 –  even as violent crime was going down. Although the department offered some justification – gun assaults on officers had jumped to 101 from 76 in the preceding year – when compared to prior years the toll seemed decidedly excessive.

     Within two weeks PPD officers shot four more civilians, three fatally. A Fraternal Order of Police official blamed the gunplay on criminals who were armed with everything up to assault rifles and often outgunned street cops. But police commissioner Charles Ramsey took a different tack. Admitting that the many shootings “gets people wondering if they were all justified,” he called for an inquiry by the Department of Justice, just like he did while police chief in Washington D.C. In 2014 PPD began posting officer-involved shooting data on the web.

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     DOJ wrapped up its inquiry earlier this year. It examined 394 officer-involved shootings (OIS’s) between 2007-2014. During that period, in a city that was approximately 43 percent black and 37 percent white, eighty percent of those shot were black and nine percent were white. Fifty-six percent had been armed with a firearm and eight percent with a “sharp object,” while others carried blunt objects and bb guns. Fifteen percent, though, were completely unarmed. It’s that group that drew our attention. Why were unarmed persons shot? Specifically, were unarmed blacks more likely to be shot than unarmed whites? And did officer race matter?

     According to the study, officers usually shot unarmed persons for one of two reasons: a failure of “threat perception,” and during physical altercations:

    Threat perception failures occur when the officer(s) perceives a suspect as being armed due to the misidentification of a nonthreatening object (e.g., a cell phone) or movement (e.g., tugging at the waistband). This was the case in 49 percent of unarmed incidents. Physical altercations refer to incidents in which the suspect reached for the officer’s firearm or overwhelmed the officer with physical force. This was the case in 35 percent of unarmed OISs.

     Perhaps surprisingly, unarmed whites were more likely to be shot than unarmed blacks (twenty-five percent of shootings versus 15.8 percent.) The reasons were also different: unarmed whites were most often shot because they physically resisted, while unarmed blacks were most often shot due to lapses in officers’ threat perception. And there was another surprise: black officers seemed more likely than their white colleagues to misperceive threats when citizens were black:

    We also examined the race of involved officers in threat perception failure OISs to gain a greater understanding of how cross-race encounters may influence threat perception. We found that the threat perception failure rate for White officers and Black suspects was 6.8 percent. Black officers had a threat perception failure rate of 11.4 percent when the suspect was Black. The threat perception failure rate for Hispanic officers was 16.7 percent when involved in an OIS with a Black suspect.

     So, did race matter? While DOJ’s report doesn’t say “no,” its conclusions, which sharply criticized PPD’s training and supervisory practices, don’t mention race. Aside from this study, there is preciously little data about cross-racial law enforcement encounters. And where it exists, the interpretations are decidedly mixed. Here are some examples:

  • An analysis of surveys and observations in Indianapolis and St. Petersburg during 1996-1997 concluded that black cops seemed significantly more willing than white officers to defuse conflicts in predominantly black areas. To complicate matters, it also seemed that black officers seemed more likely than white officers to turn to coercion (Ivan Y. Sun and Brian K. Payne, “Racial Differences in Resolving Conflicts,” Crime and Delinquency, October 2004, pp. 516-541.)
  • A study of 230 shootings by St. Louis police between 2003-2012 determined that the most important determinant was not officer race but the level of firearms violence.
  • A review of FBI and other data from 1994-1998 for 179 cities with populations of 100,000 or more found no significant relationship between police killings of felons and the prevalence of black or Hispanic officers (Brad W. Smith, “The Impact of Police Officer Diversity on Police-Caused Homicides,” The Policy Studies Journal, 31:2, 2003, pp. 147-162).
  • An  examination of similar data for 2000-2003 found that, in line with the hypothesis that minorities were regarded as threats, sustained complaints of excessive force went up as the proportion of minority residents increased. Interestingly, sustained complaints went down as the proportion of black (but not Hispanic) officers increased (Brad W. Smith and Malcolm D. Holmes, “Police Use of Excessive in Minority Communities: A Test of the Minority Threat, Place, and Community Accountability Hypotheses,” Social Problems, 61(1), 2014, pp. 83-104.)

     It seems that the effects of race on officer decisions, if any, are often subtle, difficult to measure, and open to divergent interpretations. For example, it may be that officials feel more pressure to take excessive force complaints seriously in areas with larger minority populations. Really, policing yields sufficient anecdotes to confirm or refute virtually any position. Those who don’t feel that race matters can point to the incident mentioned in Part I, where Maryland officer Johnnie Riley was convicted for shooting a handcuffed prisoner. (It turns out that both officer Riley and his victim were black.) On the other hand, those convinced that race is important can bring up tragic events such as the shooting death of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year old Cleveland boy who was killed by a white police officer while holding a toy pistol.

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    In the end, quarrels about the impact of citizen and officer race cannot be resolved with data alone. In this world, race obviously does matter. Police – those unique citizens we empower to use force and coercion – must represent the diversity of the communities they serve.  And that’s not just for the sake of appearances. In British tradition, cops are much more than peacekeepers and law enforcers – they’re role models, whose conduct sets the standard to which all citizens should aspire. Consider just how useful it might be for youths living in disadvantaged areas to be regularly exposed to officers who really, really look like them. It’s a crime-prevention strategy that could potentially yield great rewards.

UPDATES (scroll)

4/11/22  L.A. County D.A. Todd Spitzer, who is running for re-election, is under fire for allegedly showing racial bias during an in-house discussion about whether to seek the death penalty in a murder case. Jamon Buggs, a Black man, is soon going to trial for murdering two persons during a jealousy-fueled spree over a White woman he had dated. Spitzer reportedly told several of his lawyers that Black men dated White women to improve their life situations. A prosecutor whom Spitzer later fired insisted the comment be reported to the defense, but Spitzer disagreed. He then reassigned the case to a different legal team. Spitzer decided not to ask for death, angering the mother of one of the victims.

7/23/21  In a remarkable, candid interview, a young Black LAPD officer who, as a baby, was rescued by police from a dumpster expressed how his “dual identity...has left him straddling one of the nation’s most volatile cultural fault lines - and feeling criticized for not landing solidly on either side.” Yet he remains hopeful and enthusiastic. “To me, it’s not ‘everybody’s an enemy’. If both sides were to open up again and talk and communicate, the atmosphere would be totally different.”

12/30/20  DOJ announced that it would not file Federal civil-rights charges against White Cleveland police officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback over the 2014 death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year old Black youth. They responded to a 911 call about a person pointing a gun, and then-officer Loehmann shot and killed the child when he allegedly pointed what turned out to be a B.B. gun. Dispatchers were reportedly told that the suspect was a kid and that his gun might be “fake” but did not pass it  on.

3/19/17  The Cleveland 911 call-taker who failed to alert dispatchers that an armed person in a park was probably a kid with a toy gun was punished with an eight-day suspension. In 2014 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer who thought that his air pistol was a real gun.

2/4/17  In “Race and the Police Use of Force Encounter in the United States” (Brit. J. of Criminol., 12/26/16) the authors conclude that, other factors being equal, in incidents where force was used White officers used more force against Blacks than against Whites, while Black officers treated both races about equally. (Note that the dataset had a far greater number of white officer encounters.)

6/11/16  Researchers used a sample of 80 patrol officers (nearly all White) to experimentally test whether suspect race affects simulated shoot-don’t shoot decisions. Their findings were that despite being implicitly biased against Blacks, officers were less likely to shoot Blacks than Whites. (“The Reverse Racism Effect,Criminology & Public Policy, 15:2, May 2016.)

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Don’t “Divest” - Invest!     A Reason? Or Just an Excuse?     Is it Always About Race?

Getting Out of Dodge     Good Guy/Bad Guy/Black Guy (I)  (II)     Role Reversal     De-escalation

Does Race Matter? (Part I)     Lessons of Ferguson     A Very Hot Summer     Three Perfect Storms

When Cops Kill (II)     When Cops Kill

Posted 12/2/15


Police killings of black persons roil the nation

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. No one disputes that Laquan McDonald had a grim upbringing. Neglected by his mother, then physically abused by her boyfriend, Laquan had passed most of his seventeen years in foster care. Friends point out that at the time of his death – the teen was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer on October 20, 2014 – Laquan was taking classes at a continuation high school, making good grades and trying to succeed. Yet he had recently been arrested for possessing marijuana and his autopsy revealed traces of PCP. Here is how Garry McCarthy, Chicago’s former police superintendent (he got canned the other day) summed up the challenges facing the troubled youth:

    In this case, we have a tragic ending unfortunately to a tragic life of a young man who was betrayed on a number of different levels. And typically, these cases end up in the police department’s hands. And, in this case, it ended up in his death.

    McCarthy’s comments were made on November 25, the day when fourteen-year veteran officer Jason Van Dyke surrendered on charges of first-degree murder for gunning down McDonald, and only one day after a court ordered the release, against the city’s wishes, of a graphic police video of the encounter. Considering the year-plus delay in filing charges, it left many wondering whether anything would have happened had a protest movement (its now-famous rallying cry is “sixteen shots, thirteen months”) failed to coalesce.

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     According to a unique Washington Post website, police have shot and killed 894 persons in the U.S. this year, including 431 whites, 228 blacks and 145 Hispanics. States with more than one black fatality include Florida (six), California (three) and Maryland, New York, Ohio, Texas and Virginia (two each). Twenty-eight white casualties and thirty black casualties were reportedly unarmed. Of the latter, the two most recent are Anthony Ashford, 29, shot and killed October 27 by a San Diego Harbor police officer, and Jamar Clark, 24, shot and killed November 15 by a Minneapolis officer. According to police, Ashford attempted to grab an officer’s gun and Clark had been combative.

     Controversies about such shootings may be leading prosecutors to act in situations they might have once ignored or left for the civil courts to untangle. Outcomes are proving mixed. In November 2014 a Maryland judge sentenced suburban cop Johnnie Riley to five years imprisonment after a jury convicted him of first-degree assault for shooting a handcuffed, fleeing man in the back, leaving him paralyzed. But not all such cases have borne fruit:

  • Last week jurors acquitted a suburban Pennsylvania officer of manslaughter for shooting and killing David Kassick, a 59-year old white person who was lying on the ground, brought down by Taser darts while fleeing on foot from a traffic stop. http://www.phillyvoice.com/pennsylvania-officer-acquitted-in-shooting-of-susp/
  • In August prosecutors dismissed voluntary manslaughter charges against Charlotte, North Carolina police officer Randall Kerrick after jurors deadlocked 8-4 in favor of acquittal. Two years earlier, Kerrick shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed black man who was pounding on doors of private residences after a late-night car accident.
  • In April a jury acquitted Chicago PD detective Dante Servin of involuntary manslaughter for shooting and killing a black woman two years earlier. Servin, while off-duty, had been aiming at the victim’s companion, a rowdy male who allegedly charged at him, and whom Servin mistakenly believed was armed.

     Two foundational Supreme Court decisions guide the police use of force. In Tennessee v. Garner (1985), the Court ruled that deadly force cannot be used to prevent a felon’s escape unless there is probable cause to believe that the suspect “poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” Four years later, in Graham v. Connor, the justices held that police use of force should be evaluated in light of the Fourth Amendment’s “reasonableness” standard: were officers’ actions “objectively reasonable” in light of the circumstances? Further, “reasonableness” was to be judged not from an after-the-fact, lay point of view but from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, with allowance for officers’ frequent need to make split-second decisions.

     Official police policies and procedures closely track these rulings. For example, here is the Los Angeles Police Department’s policy on use of deadly force:

    Law enforcement officers are authorized to use deadly force to protect themselves or others from what is reasonably believed to be an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury; or, prevent a crime where the suspect’s actions place person(s) in imminent jeopardy of death or serious bodily injury; or, prevent the escape of a violent fleeing felon when there is probable cause to believe the escape will pose a significant threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or others if apprehension is delayed. In this circumstance, officers shall, to the extent practical, avoid using deadly force that might subject innocent bystanders or hostages to possible death or injury. The reasonableness of an officer's use of deadly force includes consideration of the officer's tactical conduct and decisions leading up to the use of deadly force.

     Exactly what constitutes a sufficient threat remains legally uncertain. A recent Supreme Court decision (Mullenix v. Luna, no. 14-1143, 11/9/15) reviewed the actions of a police officer who, armed with a rifle, perched on an overpass and fired as a fleeing felon sped by, killing the man. Survivors filed a lawsuit alleging excessive force. Although lower courts favored holding a trial on the merits of their claim, the Supreme Court ruled that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity, as it has not been “clearly established” that the Fourth Amendment prohibits using deadly force under the circumstances he faced.

     Let’s turn to the issue of present concern: police shootings of black people. In “Lessons of Ferguson” we speculated that “crossed signals” between cops and citizens are less likely when both parties are of the same race. It also seems commonsensical that racially representative police forces are more likely to enjoy good relations with minority communities. Yet in many areas – say, Ferguson, with only three black officers (out of 52 total) for a city that is two-thirds black – there are relatively few black cops. A recent analysis of 2013 data for 269 police agencies serving populations of 100,000 or more revealed that blacks are underrepresented by an average of 6.4 percent. In twenty-six localities where blacks are in the majority, the average gap increases to 14.5 percent. Gaps are most pronounced in medium-sized communities, reaching 45.4 percent in Daly City, California, 44.1 percent in Edison Township, New Jersey, and 42.4 percent in Fremont, California. However, in the larger cities the gaps vary. Black police officers are underrepresented by 6.6 percent in Chicago and 6.5 percent in New York City, but are overrepresented by 1 percent in Dallas, 1.1 percent in Seattle, 1.4 percent in Boston, 2.8 percent in Los Angeles, 3.5 percent in San Francisco, 10.6 percent in Washington D.C. and 15.6 percent in Miami.

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     Every year the FBI publishes statistics of killings by police.  Aside from being incomplete – participation is voluntary, and many agencies contribute sporadically or not at all – the data only reflects situations (nearly all are shootings) where someone died, the killing was deemed justifiable, and the decedent was a “felon.” Keeping the limitations in mind, ProPublica used the data to analyze police killings during 1980-2012 (click here and here). On the one hand, they found that black youths, ages 15-19, were from 9.1 to 21 times more likely than white youths to be shot dead by police. On the other, they discovered that seventy-eight percent of the “felons” killed by black officers (they accounted for ten percent of shootings) were also black.

     ProPublica did not reach any conclusions about the effects of officer or suspect race. Indeed, as there is no comprehensive national repository of killings by police, figuring out whether black persons are more likely to be shot because of their race, the circumstances of an encounter, or factors such as the local crime problem, seems an impossible task. Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped researchers from trying. Next week we’ll report on their work (including a recent, in-depth DOJ-commissioned study) and even offer some of our own (fully baked!) solutions.

     Stay tuned!

UPDATES (scroll)

12/2/22  Last year three Georgia men, Greg McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan, each White, were sentenced to life for chasing and killing Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man whom they spotted running through their neighborhood. Police quickly developed good leads but arrested no one, so State investigators stepped in. Former D.A. Jackie Johnson, who had employed Travis McMichael, now faces felony and misdemeanor charges for having ordered officers to leave him alone. (See 12/20/21 update)

1/17/22  Thanks to good conduct credits, former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was sentenced in 2016 to 81 months imprisonment for second-degree murder in the killing of 17-year old Laquan Mc Donald, is due for release on February 3. He was also convicted on 16 counts of aggravated battery - one for each shot - but the lesser crimes did not draw separate penalties. Van Dyke’s allegedly lenient treatment has activists riled, and they’ve already staged a protest.

12/20/21  To prevent the misuse of peremptory challenges, in 2018 Washington State enacted a rule that directs judges to consider whether an “objective observer” would think that racial bias was the motive behind the exclusion of a minority person from a jury panel. Arizona and California have followed suit. That issue has taken on urgency because the jury panel in the trial of three White men who killed Ahmaud Arbery had only one Black member. That led the judge to conclude there was “intentional discrimination.” (But the trial went on, and the defendants were nonetheless convicted.) (See 12/2/22 update)

12/17/20  California data reveals that between 2016-2019 state residents made about 3,500 allegations of racial profiling by police. Agencies upheld a total of forty-nine complaints. LAPD sustained two out of 883, while the L.A. County Sheriff sustained two out of 146. According to LAPD, nearly eight out of ten complaints (its criteria go beyond race) were simply false. LASD reported that it took more actions against deputies than it seems, but most of the faults uncovered were not about race.

12/4/19  Four years after the police killing of Laquan McDonald, an unarmed Black youth, led then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel to fire Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, Chicago’s new Mayor, Lori Lightfoot fired the replacement Chief, Eddie Johnson, over “a series of ethical lapses.” Chief Johnson, who was found passed out in his car, had announced his retirement.

7/20/19  Chicago police fired a Sergeant and three officers for lying about their observations during the encounter with Laquan McDonald. According to investigators, the officers “exaggerated the threat” posed by McDonald, who was armed with a knife but, according to video, was walking away when he was shot dead by officer Jason Van Dyke.

1/17/09  A Chicago judge acquitted three officers of conspiring to obstruct justice by giving false accounts that justified officer Jason Van Dyke’s shooting of Laquan McDonald. Two, Van Dyke’s partner and an officer who investigated the incident, have resigned.

10/5/18  Chicago jurors convicted officer Jason Van Dyke, who shot and killed Laquan McDonald, of second-degree murder and aggravated battery with a firearm. He faces at least six years in prison. His lawyer bemoaned the conviction and said it would make cops fearful of doing their jobs. But a sign-waving crowd awaiting the verdict outside City Hall rejoiced. NY Times on juror opinions.

6/27/17  Chicago prosecutors charged three officers with conspiracy and obstruction for reporting that Laquan McDonald was advancing on officer Van Dyke when he shot and killed him, while a police dashcam video suggests that McDonald, who was armed with a knife, had turned away.

9/20/16  Riots break out in Charlotte after a black officer shoots and kills a black man whom police claim brandished a handgun and refused to put it down. Officers were at the apartment complex where Keith Scott, 43, lived to arrest someone else when Mr. Scott stepped out of a vehicle, supposedly holding a gun. Open (holstered) carry of firearms is permitted in North Carolina.

8/20/16  Chicago’s police superintendent recommended the firing of seven police officers who claimed, as it turns out, falsely, that Laquan McDonald was advancing on the officer who shot and killed him.

6/11/16  Researchers used a sample of 80 patrol officers (nearly all White) to experimentally test whether suspect race affects simulated shoot-don’t shoot decisions. Their findings were that despite being implicitly biased against Blacks, officers were less likely to shoot Blacks than Whites. (“The Reverse Racism Effect,Criminology & Public Policy, 15:2, May 2016.)

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On the One Hand...     Don’t “Divest” - Invest!     Can the Urban Ship be Steered?     Speed Kills

Police Slowdowns (I)  (II)     A Reason?     Is it Always About Race?     Getting Out of Dodge

Good Guy/Bad Guy/Black Guy (I)  (II)     De-escalation     Does Race Matter? (Part II)

Lessons of Ferguson     A Very Hot Summer     Three Perfect Storms     When Cops Kill (I)  (II)

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