When Police Kill
Now that we finally have a president who “supports the police” and promises to end the “dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America,” we can begin to gauge how and why this so-called anti-police atmosphere has arisen from a remarkable piece of research, When Police Kill, written by Frank Zimring and published by Harvard University Press. Zimring is no stranger to the field of gun violence research, having produced formative efforts in this field for more than forty years. And if you think for one second that the issue of cop killings doesn’t go to the heart of the debate about gun violence, think again. Because what Zimring shows is that not only are most fatalities which occur at the hands of police the result of cops using guns, but the number of such deaths each year is undercounted by more than half!
Zimring bases his estimate of 1,000+ fatal cop shootings each year on the data collected by The Guardian, whose website contains incident-by-incident counts of cop shootings drawn from a constant scanning of web reports, tips from viewers, social media, what is referred to as ‘crowdsourced’ information which Guardian staff carefully examine and attempt to validate before posting the results online. The first half of When Cops Kill is based on the Guardian data covering January 1 through June 30, 2015. I looked at the remainder of 2015 and the year’s entire total was 1,146, more than twice the number estimated by the three government agencies – FBI, DOJ and CDC – which are supposed to provide solid information on which discussions about public policy usually depend.
Zimring’s explanation for this whopping discrepancy in the numbers covering cop killings basically falls back on some well-worn idea about the limitations of coroner reports, the lack of money for more intensive research and the fact that not one single police agency whose jurisdiction might encompass a police shooting (or any kind of shooting, for that matter) is required to report this information to the FBI. But what’s really behind this lack of specificity about cop shootings is something more generic to the problem itself, namely, that better data would require that the cops do a more thorough job of investigating and reporting shootings by their own, and this just simply doesn’t take place.
One might be tempted to assume that the underreporting is also a function of the extent to which police gun violence, like all gun violence, primarily involves minorities, but this is not the case. In fact, in 2015, whites were 50 percent of all victims shot by cops, blacks were 27 percent and Hispanics comprised 17 percent. But of the 12,979 deaths attributed by the CDC to non-cop gun violence, the ratios were reversed, with whites comprising 24 percent of the total, blacks comprising 58 percent and Hispanics at 16 percent. The bottom line is that police gun violence is ignored because it’s ignored, period.
Reported or not, the real question is why are there so many fatal cop shootings each year – the numbers dwarf differences between our overall gun violence and what is experienced in other Western countries. Zimring’s answer is what you might expect, namely, “the proliferation of concealable firearms in the civilian population.” For the first half of 2015, guns were recovered from 56 percent of the victims of fatal police shootings, a number which dropped to slightly below 50 percent for the year as a whole.
Notwithstanding the lack of training, the lack of thorough reporting and the lack of operational concern, the fact is that a police officer in the United States who finds himself in a confrontational situation believes that there is a one out of two chance that his adversary is carrying a gun. And as we say, you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.
I will publish a separate column on Zimring’s recommendations for what he refers to as ‘the mess’ of police gun violence. But don’t wait for my additional thoughts on this valuable and important book before reading it yourself. It needs to be read.
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