Use of Force 2016


Posted 10/5/16

IS IT ALWAYS ABOUT RACE?

 Unruly citizens and streets brimming with guns
make risk-tolerance a very hard sell

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Fatal police shootings of black men in Tulsa, Charlotte, El Cajon and, most recently, Los Angeles have inflamed tensions between police and minority communities. We’ll look at these and other episodes in a moment. But if black citizens are indeed treated more harshly – as we’ve reported, the findings go both ways – the essential question is: why? Some officers – hopefully, very few – may be classically “prejudiced,” meaning driven by racial animus. On the other hand, racial stereotyping is probably widespread. Cops are likely influenced by their experiences in lower-income, minority communities, where violence and gunplay are an ever-present threat. And when it comes to blacks the data is particularly grim. While African-Americans constitute only 13.3 percent of the population, 52.3 percent of homicide victims in 2015 were black. (Click here for census data, here for victim data, and here for offender data.)

     Sometimes, though, it’s not just about race. Let’s begin our exploration with a few “perfect storms” from Southern California, your blogger’s backyard. We start with one of our earliest posts:

May 2008, Inglewood: Patrol officers investigating gunfire saw a man jump into a car. It accelerated in their direction. They opened fire, wounding two occupants and killing Michael Byoune, a 19-year old black teen. It turned out that no one in the car had done anything wrong. Here’s what the police chief said: “I won’t go so far as to call it a mistake. The process that the officers went through had a very tragic outcome.” One officer was Hispanic, the other, white. Two months later, the white cop was involved in another fatal shooting of a black man and was removed from patrol duty. He later left the department and sued, ultimately unsuccessfully, for discrimination. A civil suit by the victim families was settled for $2.45 million.

September 2009, South L.A. County: L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies looking for two robbery suspects encountered a pair of candidates. One, a middle-aged black man, ran off and an officer chased him on foot. At some point the man made a motion, leading the officer to fire, killing Darrick Collins, 36. But he turned out to be innocent. Collins did have some pills, though, and after a recent arrest for drugs was probably trying to avoid another bust. An internal investigation found the cop to have “acted lawfully, in self-defense.” Even so, Collins’ family received a $900,000 settlement.

March 2010, Los Angeles: LAPD gang officers on motorized patrol heard a “loud noise.” Looking around, they observed a pedestrian fiddling with something in his pants. They ordered the man to stop but he approached them, still fiddling. The officers fired, fatally wounding Steven Eugene Washington, 27, an autistic black man. Washington was unarmed. An internal investigation found the officers at fault for how they “approached and engaged” but not for the shooting, as they could have reasonably feared he was reaching for a gun and had only an instant to decide. The victim’s mother settled for $950,000. After several years on desk duty the officers (both are Hispanic) sued for discrimination and retaliation. Jurors awarded them $4 million.

July 2011, Fullerton: Officers confronted a man who seemed to be prowling parked cars. When he resisted multiple cops pummeled him and repeatedly applied a Taser, deeply alarming passers-by. Kelly Thomas, 37, a white, homeless schizophrenic, later died. Three officers were prosecuted for manslaughter and excessive force: two were acquitted and charges were dismissed against the third. (Our post commented on an apparently undisciplined response by multiple units and the involvement of a cop with an allegedly brutal reputation.) A civil suit filed by the victim’s family was settled for $4.9 million.

February 2012, Orange County: A sheriff’s deputy observed an SUV crash through the locked gates of a high school at 4:30 am. The driver, who was black, walked off, leaving two girls, nine and fourteen, in the cab. More cops arrived. Soon the driver returned, ignored the deputy, got in the vehicle and tried to drive off. Supposedly to protect the girls, the officer, who is white, fired three times, fatally wounding Manuel Levi Loggins, Jr., a 31-year old Marine Corps sergeant (the children were his daughters.) Although no charges were filed, the D.A. nonetheless wondered why the deputy let the driver re-enter the vehicle:

    In hindsight, one could conclude that several non-deadly options were available to Deputy Sandberg prior to the shooting. For example, he could have removed the children and/or the keys from the vehicle prior to [the driver’s] return. Of course, this would have required [the deputy] to anticipate that [the driver] would return to the vehicle and blatantly ignore the deputies’ commands prior to re-entering the SUV.

“Anticipate,” of course, is what cops do. A $4.4 million settlement was reached with the man’s wife and kids.

Civil judgments 2012-2013: Be sure to read our mind-boggling summary. One, for an eye-popping $24 million, resulted from the 2010 shooting of a teen playing with a pellet gun. Here’s an extract from the LAPD chief’s reaction to the jury’s award:

    …The replica gun was indistinguishable from a real handgun on a dark night. When our officers are confronted with a realistic replica weapon in the field, they have to react in a split second to the perceived threat. If our officers delay or don’t respond to armed suspects, it could cost them their lives…I am encouraging the City Attorney to appeal because I believe the judgment is unwarranted.

The child, Rohayent Gomez, 13, was paralyzed. Both he and the officer are Hispanic.

August 2014, Los Angeles: Two LAPD gang officers, one white, the other Hispanic, confronted a black male pedestrian at night in a high-crime area. According to police, the man assaulted one cop and went for his gun. He was shot dead. As it turns out, Ezell Ford, 25, was unarmed and seriously mentally ill. LAPD’s chief found the shooting “in policy.” But the Police Commission disagreed, concluding that the officers lacked reason for the stop and handled it poorly. Both cops wound up on permanent desk duty, then sued for discrimination and retaliation. State and federal lawsuits were also filed by Ford’s family. (This notorious incident has its own Wikipedia page. For an activist viewpoint click here.)


     Ford’s death wasn’t the only during that “Very Hot Summer.” Two weeks earlier NYPD officers tangled with a middle-aged black man peddling untaxed cigarettes. A late-arriving cop jumped into the fray and applied a choke hold, killing Eric Garner, 43. That incident was promptly followed by the shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year old black Missouri youth who shoplifted a box of cigarillos from a convenience store and shoved aside the protesting clerk. This episode is now simply referred to by the name of the city where it took place: “Ferguson.”

     Only two months after Brown’s death, a Chicago cop with a history of complaints shot and killed Laquan McDonald, a mentally troubled 17-year old black youth wielding a knife. Other cops on scene reportedly thought force excessive. Protests engulfed the city, leading to the chief’s prompt firing, and, ultimately, to the officer’s indictment for murder (the case is pending.) Chicago settled with the victim’s family for $5 million.

     And still there was no let-up. Only a month later, in November 2014, a Cleveland officer shot and killed Tamir Rice, a black teen who had pointed a realistic-looking pellet gun at visitors to a city recreation center. Although the cop insisted that 12-year old reached for the gun, witnesses disagreed, and a video suggested that the officer fired almost instantly after encountering the youth. Citing a “perfect storm of human error, mistakes, and communications by all involved that day,” grand jurors declined to indict the cop or his partner. Cleveland settled with the child’s family for $6 million.

   Five months later came an event that didn’t involve gunplay. On April 12, 2015 Freddie Gray, a 25-year old black man was fatally injured while riding in a Baltimore police van. Gray was being taken to jail after an arrest for having a switchblade knife. In a city where police had been repeatedly accused of mistreating blacks, the incident (we blogged about in “A Very Rough Ride”) set off nights of protest, looting and violence. Determined to make things right, the D.A. (she is black) promptly charged six cops, including three black officers, for crimes ranging to manslaughter. But evidence of intent was lacking, and after one mistrial and three acquittals – by a black judge, no less – all remaining charges were dropped. Gray’s family settled for $6.4 million.

     One month later, two LAPD officers tussled with a homeless man annoying passers-by on the Venice boardwalk. During the struggle the officer, who is black, drew his gun and fired, mortally wounding Glendon Brenn, a 29-year old black man. A surveillance video contradicted the cop’s claim that Brenn went for his partner’s gun. In a rare set of moves, the chief criticized the cops’ approach as tactically unsound, ruled that drawing a gun and firing were unjustified, and recommended prosecution. However, the D.A. hasn’t acted and at this point it seems unlikely that the officer who shot Brenn will face charges.

     Less than a year later two incidents led the kettle to boil over. On July 5, 2016 officers in Baton Rouge tangled with Alton Sterling, a 37-year old black man. Sterling, a registered sex offender with a violent past, was selling CD’s and had reportedly brandished a gun. He resisted being searched and a furious struggle ensued. A Taser didn’t work, and when Sterling allegedly reached for the pistol that he was indeed carrying a cop shot him dead. One day later, on July 6, officers in Falcon Heights, Minn., a suburb of St. Paul, stopped a car whose driver supposedly resembled the photo of an armed robber. Philando Castile, a 32-year old black man, promptly pulled over. His girlfriend, who was riding in front, said that he immediately told the officer he had a gun (he did, and it was legally registered.) But something got lost in translation, and when Castile reached for his wallet the cop opened fire, fatally wounding him. And no, Castile was not the robber.

   While the precipitating factors differed, the deaths of Sterling and Castile led to widespread protests and became the driving force behind the movement known as “Black Lives Matter.” Inflammatory, anti-cop rhetoric became a “new normal,” inspiring angry, disturbed characters to retaliate. One day after Sterling’s death a gunman murdered five officers and wounded nine in Dallas; ten days later, another shot and killed three officers and wounded three in Baton Rouge.

     If there had ever been a time for introspection and, perhaps, some behavior modification on everyone’s part, this was surely it. Alas, polarization prevailed. Law enforcement executives expressed little appetite for fundamentally rethinking the use of force, while black leaders condemned the police while ignoring the drug use, gunplay and loutish behavior bedeviling their own communities.

     And the toll continued. On September 16 a pair of Tulsa cops confronted a disoriented middle-aged black man. Ignoring police orders to stop, Terence Crutcher, 40, returned to the vehicle he had inexplicably abandoned and reached in, prompting one officer to discharge his Taser and the other to fire her gun. Crutcher fell dead. Police did not find any guns, but did recover a vial of PCP. A former parolee with a history of arrests, Crutcher had served nearly four years on drug charges and was reportedly using PCP. Prosecutors accused Officer Betty Jo Shelby, 42, of overreacting and promptly charged her with manslaughter.

     A mere four days later another middle-aged black man fell to police gunfire. On September 20 Charlotte (N.C.) plainclothes officers on an unrelated assignment observed Keith Lamont Scott, 43, sitting in a parked vehicle. According to Officers Scott was rolling a joint, and when he stepped out and reentered his vehicle they noticed he was armed with a handgun. In North Carolina open carry is legal, but the presence of both a gun and drugs ultimately led police to order Scott from his vehicle. He got out but allegedly ignored orders to drop the gun, then made a supposedly threatening motion. That’s when a black plainclothes officer shot Scott dead. Videos of the event proved inconclusive and riots erupted. As a convicted felon – he served a prison term for a 2005 shooting – Scott was Federally prohibited from possessing firearms. Police recovered a handgun, and a video of the incident depicts him wearing an ankle holster.

     One week after that, Alfred Okwera Olango, 38, a Ugandan refugee, was shot dead by an officer in El Cajon (Calif.) His sister had called police and reported her brother was acting strangely. Two officers confronted Olango: one pointed a Taser, the other a gun. A video still from the moment at which they fired depicts Olango in a shooting pose, aiming what turned out to be an electronic vape device at one of the cops. Olango had been convicted in the U.S. for transporting and selling drugs and for being an armed felon, and Uganda refused to take him back. “My son was a good, loving young man,” his mother lamented. “Only 38 years old, I wanted his future to be longer than that. I wanted him to enjoy his daughter.”


     Whew. Let’s pause to offer some comments about the use of force. First, cops who place themselves inside threat perimeters without cover (e.g., most incidents described above) are gambling that they know what’s up and can react appropriately. But citizens are full of surprises, repeatedly startling officers into doing exactly what most desperately want to avoid. So unless innocent persons are under immediate threat, the old “surround and call-out” technique is highly recommended. When there aren’t enough officers to bottle someone up, disabling vehicles, closing off escape routes or simply tagging along can “make” precious time to gather information and plan the next move. Maybe that gun really is a vapor pen. Who would have thought?

Click here for the complete collection of use of force essays

     Of course, some citizens refuse to be interrupted. Others may be so physically imposing – Eric Garner and Alton Sterling are good examples – that going mano-a-mano promises a big-time struggle with an uncertain conclusion. Cops carry lots of stuff on their belts, and none want to roll around on the ground and risk having their tools used against them. That’s where bean-bag shotguns and Tasers come in. Yes, they’re expensive, use specialized “ammunition” and require training and regular practice. But when citizens refuse to comply, there are few better options. Every cop should have a Taser, and each police car should be equipped with a bean-bag shotgun, not just the supervisor vehicles where they’re usually kept.

     Incidentally, our vision of Tasers and bean-bags as preventive tools probably clashes with some agency guidelines. Bringing down an uncooperative someone with a less-than-lethal weapon is best done the instant it’s possible. Waiting for additional justification can turn into a death warrant. So reworking the rules governing the use of less-than-lethal force may be called for.

     Constructs such as “productivity” and “proactivity,” while perhaps defensible in other occupations, are a lousy fit for policing. We have repeatedly argued against the widespread use of strategies such as stop-and-frisk, and even suggested that it is sometimes best to simply leave petty offenders alone. (For a comprehensive overview see “Good Guy/Bad Guy/Black Guy, Part II”.) Aggressive law enforcement practices mesh poorly with the social fabric, and their use has badly damaged relations between citizens and police. Should a paradigm be called for, we suggest “craftsmanship.”

     Finally, many of the incidents described above can best be described as “clusters.” (Yes, we mean it in the vernacular.) To minimize the use of force a well-organized response is essential. That’s why patrol shifts must regularly train together. (Those who think that notion odd or too expensive are directed to the million-dollar awards and settlements mentioned above.) And once cops are on scene, someone must, regardless of rank, take charge and remain in control until there’s an orderly handoff.


     Policing is an imperfect enterprise conducted by fallible humans in unpredictable, often hostile environments. Limited resources, gaps in information, questionable tactics and the personal idiosyncrasies of cops and citizens have conspired to yield horrific outcomes. Still, countless cop-citizen encounters occur every day. Many could have turned out like the examples above but, thanks to very craftsmanlike police work and considerable risk-taking, they’re resolved peacefully. Indeed, as we’ve repeatedly pointed out, if officers were completely risk-averse dead citizens would line the sidewalks at the end of each shift:

    What experienced cops well know, but for reasons of decorum rarely articulate, is that the real world isn’t the academy: on the mean streets officers must accept risks that instructors warn against, and doing so occasionally gets cops hurt or killed. Your blogger is unaware of any tolerable approach to policing a democratic society that resolves this dilemma, but if he learns of such a thing he will certainly pass it on.

     Unfortunately, ever-more-lethal firearms keep flooding the streets (for how that takes place see our related article, below). Here’s a brand-new example. Three days ago, on October 1, LAPD officers pulled over a vehicle they suspected was stolen. A passenger in the back seat reportedly ducked down. As the car slowed to a stop an 18-year old black male jumped out while “holding his waistband as if he was supporting something.” Thinking he might be armed, officers gave chase. (Watch the surveillance video. As it turns out, the cops had it right.) When Cornell Snell allegedly turned to face them, gun in hand, they opened fire. Snell was shot dead. A .40 caliber pistol was recovered, fully loaded, round in the chamber.

     Bottom line: thanks to the ready availability of powerful guns, the real and perceived risks of everyday policing have risen to unprecedented levels. With risk tolerance becoming a very hard sell, implementing a “tolerable” approach to policing seems increasingly out of reach.

UPDATE (6/16/17): Jurors acquitted St. Anthony (Minn.) officer Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of Philando Castile. Officer Yanez had faced charges of manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm.

UPDATE (5/30/17): Citing false statements he allegedly made when applying to join the force, Cleveland police fired Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot and killed Tamir Rice. His partner drew a 10-day suspension and retraining.

UPDATE (5/18/17): A jury with three black members acquitted Betty Jo Shelby, the white Tulsa officer who shot and killed Terence Crutcher, an unarmed, mentally impaired middle-aged black man. Crutcher, who ignored Shelby’s orders and was allegedly reaching into his vehicle had a history of non-compliance with police. For a highly detailed account click here.

UPDATE (5/3/17): The Department of Justice declined to file civil rights charges against the Baton Rouge police officers who shot and killed Alton Sterling. A State and local investigation into the shooting is underway.

UPDATE (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.

UPDATE (3/10/17): In “A Bird’s Eye View of Civilians Killed by Police in 2015,” (Criminology & Public Policy, February 2017) four criminologists conclude, based on data from 990 fatal shootings, that unarmed blacks are more than twice as likely to be fatally shot by police as unarmed whites.

UPDATE (2/8/17): Los Angeles agreed to pay $1.5 million to Ezell Ford’s survivors. Their case was reportedly bolstered by the L.A. Police Commission’s overruling of the Chief’s finding that the shooting was in “policy.” Both officers remain on desk duty, and their lawsuits are still pending.

UPDATE (1/24/17): Ruling that the officers were justified to shoot, the L.A. County D.A. refused to file charges in the death of Ezell Ford. His DNA was found on an officer’s holster, and a witness said that an officer screamed “let go of the gun!”

UPDATE (11/30/16): Charlotte’s D.A. ruled that the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott was justified.

UPDATE (11/16/16): Suburban St. Paul officer Jeronimo Yanez was charged with three felony crimes including manslaughter for shooting and killing Philando Castile.

UPDATE (10/13/16): The New York Times publishes a fascinating, 3-D reconstruction of the Keith Scott shooting.

Did you enjoy this post? Be sure to explore the homepage and topical index!

Home   Top   Permalink     Print/Save     Feedback    


RELATED ARTICLE

Sources of Crime Guns in Los Angeles, California

RELATED POSTS

Are Civilians Too Easy on the Police?     Why Do Cops Succeed?     An Illusory Consensus II

A Stitch in Time     A Very Rough Ride     Words Matter     Good Guy/Bad Guy/Black Guy I II

Working Scared     A Ban in Name Only     Does Race Matter? I II     A Very Hot Summer

Lessons of Ferguson     Who Wants to be a Millionaire?     A Dead Marine     Three Perfect Storms

Homeless, Mentally Ill, Dead     First, Do no Harm     The Elephant in the Room     Making Time

Every Cop Needs a Taser     Sometimes a Drunk With a Knife     The Chase is On     When Cops Kill




Posted 7/18/16

GOOD GUY / BAD GUY / BLACK GUY (PART II)

Aggressive crime-fighting strategies can exact an unintended toll

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Part I concluded that data about police bias towards blacks yields ambiguous and contradictory findings. For black citizens, though, the notion that police decisions are supposedly based on objective factors such as crime rates may be of little comfort. A majority of the stops in New York City’s stop-and-frisk campaign took place in “high crime” zones, meaning low income areas largely populated by minorities. That essentially predetermined the race or ethnicity of those most likely to be stopped. Although blacks only comprise about 26 percent of New York City’s population (whites are 44 percent, and Hispanics about 29 percent), fifty-eight percent of the nearly five-million persons who were detained were black. Twenty-five percent were Hispanic and a measly one in ten was white.

     Police executives may insist that’s unavoidable. Blacks also need cops to be where the crime is. Consider the numbers. There were 11,961 murders in 2014. Fifty-one percent of the victims were black, 45 percent were white and about 16 percent were Hispanic. Blacks were murdered and arrested for murder at rates (4 times and 3 times, respectively) considerably exceeding their proportion of the population.

   Some of us remember the bad old days of the seventies, eighties and early nineties, when an epidemic of violence fed by crack cocaine gripped the nation. Progressive police agencies sought to enhance their efficiency and effectiveness with newfangled analytical tools like Compstat (click here, here and here)  and integrated enforcement strategies such as “hot spots” policing (click here and here). Aggressive tactics, particularly stop-and-frisk (click here and here), became all the rage.

     There was a catch. Policing is an imprecise sport. And when its well-intended practitioners target geography, meaning, by proxy, racial and ethnic minorities, the social impact of this “imprecision” can be profound. NYPD stopped nearly six times as many blacks (2,885,857) as whites (492,391). Officers frisked 1,644,938 blacks (57 percent) and 211,728 whites (43 percent). About 49,348 blacks (3 percent) and 8,469 whites (4 percent) were caught with weapons or contraband. In other words, more than one and one-half million blacks were searched and caught with…nothing.

     Methodologists call these “false positives.” If you’re white like the blogger (and reasonably law-abiding) can you remember the last time an officer mistakenly jacked you up? Yet for black persons being a false positive is commonplace. Brian Williams, a middle-aged black man, recently described an incident that happened not long ago while waiting outside his apartment building for a friend:

    Someone called in a report and police questioned me and asked me why I was there. I had to prove to them that I actually lived there. It did not become physically violent but my initial reaction was visceral, I was like I need to watch what I say here because this could turn bad.

Past encounters with police gave him cause for alarm. In one particularly humiliating episode, which took place while he was in the Air Force, officers needlessly spread-eagled him across the hood of their car after stopping him for speeding.

    My experiences they go back decades, one after the other, they become internalized. And it’s a combination of my own experiences and an oral history I receive from my friends and family members that have gone through the same thing, we don’t just make this up, this happens.

A couple weeks ago Dr. Williams, a trauma surgeon, was in the operating room, laboring to save the lives of officers gunned down by the crazed sniper in Dallas.


     In time, the resentment spawned by hundreds of thousands of false positives could no longer be ignored. Lawsuits, an unfavorable ruling from a Federal court (later set aside), imposition of a Federal monitor, and the election of a new mayor forced NYPD to drastically cut back on stop and frisks. (For more about that click here and here.) Stops plunged from 685,724 in 2011 to a reported (some claim, under-reported) 22,563 in 2015.

     It’s not just the Big Apple. Numerous complaints about civil rights violations, particularly abusive stop and frisk practices, recently forced Newark to let a Federal monitor oversee the restructuring of its police department. Stop and frisk has also created major heartburn in Chicago, Philadelphia, and, most recently, San Francisco.

     Officer personalities vary. Some are thoughtful. Others may be impulsive or unusually fearful. Even the most skilled cops often struggle to make sense of incomplete or contradictory information. If that’s not enough, good guys and bad can prove wildly unpredictable. Bottom line: not every encounter will end optimally. Indeed, some seem almost predestined to fail.


Click here for the complete collection of use of force essays

     On August 12, 2015 Los Angeles police officers were called to a pharmacy that had been robbed of cash by a woman brandishing a knife. They soon spotted the suspect and chased her down an alley. According to their account, she drew a large knife, refused to drop it, and advanced towards an officer. A Taser was fired, to no apparent effect. An officer then shot her dead. Currency and a robbery note were found on her body.

     A witness insisted that police shot Redel Kentel Jones, 30, a black woman, while she was running away. Exactly what happened can’t be conclusively confirmed, as officers did not activate their vehicle dashcams and body cameras had not yet been distributed.

     On July 12, amidst raucous protests, the Los Angeles Police Commission met to issue its ruling on the propriety of the shooting. Its decision, that the use of lethal force was “objectively reasonable and in policy,” seemed predestined, as the chief had already deemed it “in policy.” Commissioners nonetheless criticized numerous alleged failings and departures, including a lack of planning, poor positioning and inadequate inter-officer communications. A reading, though, fails to convince that doing these things differently would have greatly influenced the outcome.

     The officer who shot Jones had a Hispanic surname. He had been on the job a bit more than eight years.


     Nearly a year later, on June 25, 2016, a private citizen called Fresno, California police to report a suspicious man dressed in camouflage and carrying a rifle. Responding officers pursued a vehicle speeding away from where the suspect was last seen. Its driver refused to yield but eventually stopped. Officer body-cam videos depict the vehicle’s operator, Dylan Noble, 19, ignoring commands to show his hands, walking away from officers, then approaching them, uttering “I fucking hate my life,” all the while reaching behind him as though for a weapon. Officers fired twice, then twice more as Noble moved his arms while on the ground.

     Was Noble a good guy or a bad guy? His behavior must have quickly convinced officers of the latter. As it turns out, though, Noble was unarmed. With the benefit of hindsight, the incident seems like a clear example of “suicide by cop.”

     One officer had 20 years on the job; his partner, seventeen. Noble, a reportedly well-liked, “happy-go lucky” youth with no criminal record, was white. What happened to the man with the rifle remains a mystery.


   In “An Epidemic of Busted Taillights”, “Too Much of a Good Thing?” and “Love Your Brother – and Frisk Him, Too!” we worried that extensive use of stop and frisk, no matter how well intentioned, “can erode the bonds of trust and confidence between citizens and police.” Here’s a prescription from the past that still seems pertinent:

    Target individuals, not ethnic groups. Selecting low-income, minority areas for intensive policing, even if they’re crime “hot spots,” can damage relationships with precisely those whom the police are trying to help. Aggressive stop-and-frisk campaigns such as NYPD’s can lead impressionable young cops to adopt distorted views of persons of color, and lead persons of color to adopt distorted views of the police. Our nation’s inner cities are already tinderboxes – there really is no reason to keep tossing in matches.

     Cops would correctly point out, though, that it’s not just about enforcement “campaigns.” Even so-called “ordinary” police work can lead to tragedy. How can we prevent that? In “First, Do No Harm” we suggested that this famous medical principle is equally applicable to law enforcement. Policing must not be thought of as society’s Swiss army knife. If one need not intrude, then, simply, don’t.

     Easy to say, not so easy to do. Police cannot ignore calls about people brandishing handguns. They must respond to robberies. And while wearing camouflage and strutting around with a rifle might seem perfectly normal in, say, Texas, it’s wildly out of place in the Golden State. What’s more, people are unpredictable. Accurate information is scarce. Resources are limited. As we pointed out in “Making Time” and elsewhere, it seems almost a miracle that the bodies of clueless citizens don’t line the sidewalks at the end of each shift.

     But they don’t. “De-escalation,” a trendy, supposedly new concept being advanced by policing experts is nothing new. Most cops have always used a lot of flexibility in handling field situations, often accepting more risk, sometimes much more, than what their own agencies might officially recommend. Uncommon sense, heart, and keen insight into human nature form the core of being a cop. It’s up to field training officers to convey these values to nervous rookies so they’ll never have to explain why they shot a citizen who was reaching for a hankie. Let’s plagiarize from a prior post:

    What experienced cops well know, but for reasons of decorum rarely articulate, is that the real world isn’t the academy: on the mean streets officers must accept risks that instructors warn against, and doing so occasionally gets cops hurt or killed. Your blogger is unaware of any tolerable approach to policing a democratic society that resolves this dilemma, but if he learns of such a thing he will certainly pass it on.

     Unfortunately, present trends are unfavorable to the craft of policing. At the moment of this writing the country reels from the tragic loss of two Baton Rouge officers and a sheriff’s deputy, shot down on the morning of July 17 by a self-styled “black separatist” wielding an assault rifle. While neither he nor his actions had any support in the community, murderous rampages by deeply disturbed individuals, whatever their twisted motivations, can only lead to more police militarization and tactical rigidity and blur the line between “good guys” and “bad guys” even further. As we’ve said before, it’s not the outcome we’d wish for, but thanks in part to the proliferation of highly lethal firearms, it’s the one we’ll inevitably get.

UPDATE (10/13/16): On October 12 DOJ’s COPS office released a non-binding ”assessment” of San Francisco PD that identified “disparities in traffic stops, post-stop searches, and use of deadly force against African Americans.” Reviewers also found “numerous indicators of implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups.” Click here to access an executive summary and the full report.

Did you enjoy this post? Be sure to explore the homepage and topical index!

Home   Top   Permalink     Print/Save     Feedback    


RELATED POSTS

Ideology Trumps Reason     Is it Always About Race?     Good Guy / Bad Guy / Black Guy (I)

Working Scared     Does Race Matter? (I) (II)     Quantity, Quality and the NYPD

Half-Hearted Measures     Forty Years After Kansas City     First, Do No Harm

Bigger Guns Aren’t Enough     Making Time     An Epidemic of Busted Taillights

Too Much of a Good Thing?     The Great Debate (II)     Liars Figure

Slapping Lipstick on the Pig (I) (II) (III)     What Can Cops Really Do?     A Very Dubious Achievement

Of Hot Spots and Band-Aids     Love Your Brother - and Frisk Him, Too!     When Cops Kill (I) (II)


Posted 7/18/16; edited 6/16/17

GOOD GUY / BAD GUY / BLACK GUY (PART I)

Do cops use race to decide who poses a threat?

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. On July 5 a caller alerted Baton Rouge police that a man selling CD’s on the street brandished a gun. That man turned out to be Alton Sterling, 37, a registered sex offender with an extensive criminal history that included a stretch in prison for selling marijuana while armed with a gun (for more on his record click here.) Officers wound up tussling with Sterling, and after deploying a Taser to little apparent effect took him to the ground. Sterling continued to resist. During the struggle an officer noticed that Sterling was armed and yelled “he’s got a gun!” His partner drew his sidearm and, after a brief interval, repeatedly shot Sterling point-blank, fatally wounding him. (For bystander videos click here and here.)

     According to census figures, Baton Rouge is 55% black. Sterling was black. But was he a “bad guy”? Even if he was, did the cops have to shoot him? To be sure, Sterling was a very big man. He had also landed on his back, hindering efforts to restrain him. Officers struggled mightily (observe one cop’s exhaustion at the end) and only spotted the gun belatedly. It’s unclear just how much control they had of the man. So without more information, your blogger, while skeptical that lethal force was necessary, is reluctant to criticize. (He has vivid memories of rolling around the ground with a domestic abuser in Oregon, an encounter that could have turned out far more poorly had the man been armed.)

     Still, as Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards said, appearances were disturbing. Citing “very serious concerns,” he referred Sterling’s killing to the Feds.

     Both officers were white. One had been on the job four years, the other, three. Each had two use-of-force complaints, in each instance involving a black person. None were sustained.


     One day later two St. Anthony, Minn. officers were on patrol in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul, when they observed a vehicle driven by Philando Castile, 32. One thought that Castile resembled an armed robbery suspect depicted on a flyer and initiated a traffic stop. (Media originally indicated the stop was for a broken taillight. That reason, reportedly supplied by Castile’s girlfriend, now seems incorrect or incomplete.) Neither cop was wearing a body camera, so exactly what took place cannot be confirmed. According to the woman, who was seated next to Castile, an officer came to the driver’s side and asked for ID. Castile supposedly had a handgun within view and told the officer that it was licensed. But when Castile went for his wallet the cop opened fire, fatally wounding him.

     That’s when the stunned woman began live-streaming on Facebook. As Castile slumps on the seat, bleeding to death, the stunned officer says “I told him not to reach for it…I told him to get his hand out…” Unfortunately, that interaction happened before the passenger began recording. A lawyer representing the officer insists that his client was simply reacting to whatever it was that the driver actually did (those details have yet to be released.) “This had nothing to do with race. This had everything to do with the presence of a gun.”

     That’s not what Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton thought. In comments that stirred great controversy, he asked “would this have happened if those passengers, the driver were white? I don't think it would have…No one should be shot in Minnesota for a taillight being out of function. No one should be killed in Minnesota while seated in their car.”

     But Castile was killed in his car. And he was clearly not a “bad guy.” A well-liked food service supervisor for the public schools, Castile had a long history of traffic citations but no criminal record. According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, he was licensed to carry a gun.

     Castile was black. The officer who shot him was Hispanic and had been on the job four years. He and his partner were praised by their one-time college instructor, who called them “very intelligent” and endowed “with a ton of common sense.” Both had earned “batons of honor” for their class performance.

     Of course, this wasn’t school anymore.


     On the very next day a deeply troubled 25-year old man armed with a handgun and a high-powered rifle was ensconced in a Dallas office building, laying in wait. Outside, police monitored a Black Lives Matter protest spurred by the shootings of Sterling and Castile. Micah Xavier Johnson, a military reservist, suddenly opened fire. Soon five officers were dead and seven officers and a private citizen lay wounded. During unsuccessful negotiations, Johnson reportedly said he was targeting white officers to retaliate for police shootings of black men like himself. In an unprecedented tactical response, police eventually killed Johnson with an explosive charge delivered by a robot.


   Reliable data about police use of force is scarce. The FBI’s UCR program only publishes simple tallies of fatal shootings by police. Its scope is limited to homicides that reporting agencies deem justifiable, and there is no breakdown by race. Media outlets have tried to fill the gap. A running tally by the Washington Post indicates that as of this writing 524 persons fell to police bullets in 2016. Of the 475 whose race and ethnicity are known, about 51 percent (243) were white, 27 percent (129) were black and 17 percent (80) were Hispanic. While it’s oddly reassuring that a majority of those killed by police are white, that provides little comfort to blacks, as they constitute only 13.3 percent of the American population (whites comprise 77.1 percent and Hispanics 17.6 percent.)

     In some localities, the disparity is greater, even startling. In “Does Race Matter (Part II)” we reviewed a DOJ-commissioned report that analyzed 394 shootings by Philadelphia police during an eight-year period. In a city that’s about 43 percent black and 37 percent white, 80 percent of those shot by police were black. A just-released report by the San Francisco D.A. noted that while blacks only constitute 5.8 percent of the city’s population they figured in 39 percent (20) of the 51 officer involved-shootings during 2010-2015 where race was known.

Click here for the complete collection of use of force essays

     Are police more likely to shoot blacks because of their skin color? Until recently, most empirical research has rejected the racial bias hypothesis. For example, the Philadelphia study found that mistaken shootings of unarmed persons were most often due to errors in threat perception, and these were less likely to occur when cops were white and suspects were black. Another study, in St. Louis, concluded that police lethal force was primarily driven by fluctuations in the rate of firearms violence.


     On the other hand, a pair of recently-released studies conclude that cops apparently do use race to help decide who’s a bad guy. After aggregating a year’s worth of use of force data for twelve agencies, The Center for Policing Equity calculated a mean use of force rate per 100,000 pop. of 273 for blacks and 76 for whites. Limiting analysis to arrests narrowed the gap to 46 per 1,000 arrests for blacks and 36 for whites. Interestingly, restricting it further, to arrests for violent crimes, reversed the effect: 1003 for whites and 731 for blacks.

     Researchers then coded force on a six-point scale: (1) Hand and Body (2) OC spray (3) Weapon (4) Canine (5) Less-lethal and Taser, and (6) Lethal. Doing so greatly increased the race gap, yielding use of force rates of 653 per 100,000 for blacks and 174 for whites. When only arrests were considered the difference narrowed to 82 per 1,000 arrests for blacks and 62 for whites. In arrests for violent crime the effect again flip-flopped, to 1738 for whites and 1368 for blacks.

     Despite the unexpected reversal for violent crimes, the authors concluded that “Black residents were more likely than Whites to be targeted for force.” Still, they acknowledged the possibility that other variables could account for a seeming relationship between race and force. So they recommended that “significant attention should be paid to additional situational factors in attempting to quantify and explain racial disparities in use of force.” For example, by exploring possible between-race differences in attitudes towards resisting, fleeing, respecting officers, and so on.


     Their wish was promptly answered. In “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force,” Harvard economist Ronald G. Fryer, Jr. examined the influence of race on police use of force, alone and in combination with factors including citizen and officer demographics, citizen behavior, encounter characteristics and area crime rates. He and his team of graduate students used four data sources: New York City stop-and-frisks between 2000-2013, triennial BJS national citizen surveys between 1996-2011, Houston officer involved shootings from 2000-2015, and police shootings between 2000-2015 in ten jurisdictions: Houston, Dallas, Austin, six counties in Florida, and Los Angeles.

     Here are some of their findings:

NYC stop-and frisks (excludes lethal force): A simple analysis – effects of race on force – yielded a 53.4 percent greater likelihood that force will be used against black citizens. (One-hundred percent is “twice as likely,” so this is “half again as likely,” not an earth-shattering amount.)

Of course, “race” is a proxy for many things. When we measure its influence we unavoidably include the effects of factors that go along with race, such as area crime rates. To strip away these contributions and determine the impact of race alone we must include these factors in the analysis. Once this was done, the penalty for being black was reduced three-fold, yielding an increased risk of 17.3 percent, or 1.17 times the risk posed to whites, an exceedingly modest difference. (In our view it only proved statistically significant because such analysis is sensitive to dataset size, and there were nearly five million stop-and-frisks.)

Public contact surveys (excludes lethal force): Here is where the effect of race seemed the most robust. Including all variables, blacks self-reported that 170 percent more force used against them, a rate nearly three times greater than for whites.

Officer-involved shootings in Houston (includes a sample of arrests where OIS is likely): Unexpectedly, risk changed direction. If only race is taken into account, blacks are 23.8 percent less likely to be shot than whites. Adding in other factors increases the risk to blacks, but it still remains 8 percent less than for whites. Here is the author’s reaction:

    Given the stream of video “evidence”, which many take to be indicative of structural racism in police departments across America, the ensuing and understandable outrage in black communities across America, and the results from our previous analysis of non-lethal uses of force, the results…are startling.

Officer-involved shootings in ten jurisdictions: More unexpected findings. When only measuring race, blacks and whites seem about equally likely to be shot. As threat factors to police increase (e.g., nighttime, physical attack, armed civilian) being black becomes increasingly less risky, ultimately affording a 47.4 percent benefit over whites. (Of course, all this depends on the accuracy of police reports.)


     Clearly, both these studies intended to be applicable to the real world. Yet each had interpretive issues. Consider, for example, the Center for Police Equity’s six-point use-of-force scale. Lethal force can bring on death, which is a very big deal. But on the scale it’s only six times more consequential than placing hands on a citizen. That seems vastly understated (one-hundred times might be more like it.) Since lethal force was nearly twice as likely to be used against whites as blacks during arrests for violent crimes (.64/.37 per 1,000 arrests), applying the scale inflates the threat posed to blacks.

     Methodological problems also detract from the Harvard study. It’s likely that many of the factors it considers are correlated, which could exaggerate or otherwise bias estimates of their effect. Houston data seems particularly vulnerable to interpretive issues, as in addition to officer-involved shootings, it included a large sample of arrests for crimes that might provoke gunplay, such as resisting arrest. (This was apparently done because OIS incidents are infrequent.)

     Compelling empirical proof that police are biased against blacks remains elusive. Part II, above, examines police practices that, regardless of their intended purpose, can lead to undesirable outcomes for black citizens.

UPDATE (6/16/17): Jurors acquitted St. Anthony (Minn.) officer Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of Philando Castile. Officer Yanez had faced charges of manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm.

UPDATE (3/10/17): In “A Bird’s Eye View of Civilians Killed by Police in 2015,” (Criminology & Public Policy, February 2017) four criminologists conclude, based on data from 990 fatal shootings, that unarmed blacks are more than twice as likely to be fatally shot by police as unarmed whites.

UPDATE (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.)

UPDATE (10/15/16): On October 13 DOJ announced it would take over the “Police Data Initiative” (PDI,) a 2015 White House program that seeks to expand police collection of data to include “stops and searches, uses of force, officer-involved shootings, and other police actions.” A $750,000 grant was awarded to the Police Foundation for developing a process with 100 cooperating agencies.

Did you enjoy this post? Be sure to explore the homepage and topical index!

Home   Top   Permalink     Print/Save     Feedback    


RELATED POSTS

Ideology Trumps Reason     Is it Always About Race?     Good Guy / Bad Guy / Black Guy (II)

Working Scared     Does Race Matter? (I) (II)     Quantity, Quality and the NYPD

Half-Hearted Measures     Forty Years After Kansas City     First, Do No Harm

Bigger Guns Aren’t Enough     Making Time     An Epidemic of Busted Taillights

Too Much of a Good Thing?     The Great Debate (II)     Liars Figure

Slapping Lipstick on the Pig (I) (II) (III)     What Can Cops Really Do?     A Very Dubious Achievement

Of Hot Spots and Band-Aids     Love Your Brother - and Frisk Him, Too!     When Cops Kill (I) (II)



Posted 3/16/16

MORE RULES, LESS FORCE?

PERF promotes written guidelines to reduce the use of force. Cops aren’t happy.

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. A few weeks ago the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), an organization of progressively-minded police executives, released “Use of Force: Taking Policing to a Higher Standard.” PERF’s new monograph promotes thirty “principles” that, if wholeheartedly implemented by the nation’s police departments, would supposedly restore public confidence in its law enforcers and enhance the safety of both citizens and cops.

     Many of the principles seem self-evident. Principle 1 emphasizes the sanctity of life and stresses that police should treat everyone with respect. Principle 3 urges that force be proportional to the severity of a threat. Principle 6 urges officers to intervene when colleagues use excessive force. Principle 9 prohibits using deadly force against suspects who only pose a threat to themselves. Principles 10-13 set out various policies on use of force, including thoroughly documenting use of force incidents and insuring that each is carefully investigated. Principle 27 cautions that officers must not automatically turn to a gun just because an ECW (i.e., a Taser) proves ineffective. And principle 29 recommends that 911 operators be trained in various areas, including responses to situations involving the mentally ill.

     However, some of PERF’s suggestions are less straightforward. Here is an extract from principle 2, which has probably generated the most controversy:

    Agency use-of-force policies should go beyond the legal standard of “objective reasonableness” outlined in the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision Graham v. Connor. This landmark decision should be seen as “necessary but not sufficient,” because it does not provide police with sufficient guidance on use of force.

   In Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court ruled that police use of force must be judged “in light of the facts and circumstances judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.” According to the Court, allowances are also necessary “for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.”

     PERF felt that the decision’s “objectively reasonable” threshold and “split-second” wiggle room were far too permissive for everyday use. So it called on agencies to enact explicit rules that go well beyond Graham. Principle 17, “De-escalation,” is an example of this approach:

    De-escalation can be used in a range of situations, especially when confronting subjects who are combative and/or suffering a crisis because of mental illness, substance abuse, developmental disabilities, or other conditions that can cause them to behave erratically and dangerously. De-escalation strategies should be based on the following key principles [extracts below]:

    • Effective communication is enough to resolve many situations; communications should be the first option.
    • Communications often are more effective when they begin at a “low level,” e.g., officers speaking calmly and in a normal tone of voice.
    • Whenever possible, officers should be trained to use distance and cover to “slow the situation down” and create more time for them to continue communicating and developing options.
    • If an encounter requires a use of force, officers should start at the lowest level of force that is possible and safe.
    • As the situation and threats change, officers should re-evaluate them and respond proportionally.

Click here for the complete collection of use of force essays

     PERF has clarified that its principles aren’t meant to be applied to persons with guns. Instead, they’re about minimizing force when doing so is possible. But that won’t happen unless cops “slow things down”:

    It is important to emphasize that PERF’s 30 Guiding Principles are about resolving situations in which subjects either have no weapons, or may have knives, rocks, or other weapons – but not firearms. It is these types of encounters in which officers may be able to “slow it down” and consider various options designed to prevent the situation from ever reaching the point where deadly force would be required.

     “Slowing it down” is essential for implementing principle 22, which urges that supervisors be present whenever the use of force seems likely:

    Provide a prompt supervisory response to critical incidents to reduce the likelihood of unnecessary force (emphasis added.) Supervisors should immediately respond to any scene:

    • Where a weapon (including firearm, edged weapon, rocks, or other improvised weapon) is reported,
    • Where persons with mental health problems are reported, or
    • Where a dispatcher or other member of the department believes there is potential for use of force.

    Once on the scene and if circumstances permit, supervisors should attempt to “huddle” with officers before responding to develop a plan of action that focuses on de-escalation where possible. In the case of persons with mental health problems, supervisors who are not specially trained should consult and coordinate with officers on the scene who are specially trained.

     Our nation’s inner cities are suffused with guns, drugs and violence. Patrolling alone, or at most in pairs, officers regularly confront the consequences of poverty, ignorance and social disorganization. Cops peacefully resolve innumerable conflicts every day. Actually, many of PERF’s principles (e.g., “communications should be the first option”; “officers should start at the lowest level of force”) reflect how most policing gets done.

     In Los Angeles, where officers are trained in de-escalation, the Police Commission declined to adopt PERF’s principles in full. Still, it called for rules that would compel the use of strategies such as “slowing it down.” That enraged a union official. His complaint, that “every second counts, and hesitation will kill you,” was a common reaction among the rank and file. Indeed, as some of the more demanding principles make the rounds (e.g., “officers should never do anything to escalate a situation”), cops everywhere have started to balk (click here and here.) Even the stodgy old IACP has chimed in:

    …the IACP is extremely concerned about calls to require law enforcement agencies to unilaterally, and haphazardly, establish use of force guidelines that exceed the “objectively reasonable” standard set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly 30 years ago (Graham v. Connor). The creation of a multitude of differing policies and use of force standards throughout the United States would, undoubtedly, lead to both confusion and hesitation on behalf of law enforcement officers which in turn would threaten both their safety and that of the citizens they are sworn to protect.

     Knowing from experience just how dangerous and impulsive citizens can be, cops are naturally wary of rules that would have them wait for a boss or a riot shield (as principle 28 requires) while an unpredictable someone holds their ground. Earlier this month two NYPD officers cornered a deranged man who had already stabbed a shopkeeper dead and set another person on fire. They ordered him to drop the knife in his hands. Instead, he doused them with chemicals from a bottle. Both officers suffered serious burns but managed to shoot and wound the suspect.

     That’s not to say holding off is always inappropriate. But given the uncertainties of field encounters, the IACP, street cops, and, yes, this blogger are leery of requiring officers, on penalty of discipline, to come up with compelling justifications for not “slowing things down.” One can imagine all the creative, after-the-fact writing that would inspire! If nothing else, PERF’s implicit assumption that suspects will peacefully wait while cops deploy shields and huddle with supervisors and mental health professionals seems to convey a certain naiveté about the environment of American policing.

     Well, mystery solved! PERF’s principles came from a visit to Scotland (click here and here.) That’s right – Scotland – where violent crime is less than a quarter the U.S. rate, all handguns and semi-automatic rifles beyond .22 rimfire are illegal, fewer than one in ten homicides are committed with guns, and only two percent of cops are armed. According to a recently retired chief constable, “you never see people with guns in this country. If you do, you’re in a rural area and it’s a bloke out shooting rabbits.”

     Policing can and should be improved. Law enforcement practices must not be immune from analysis and criticism. As we’ve said before, cops who are loath to take personal risks should consider less dangerous occupations. We recently examined de-escalation, and prior posts have looked into many instances of excessive force, including firing at vehicles without clear justification. Still, instead of making more rules – believe us, American police have plenty of those – it might be wiser to examine, in depth, the craft of policing. That’s right – the craft. Some cops excel at peacefully defusing things. A systematic study of their working styles could generate ideas to make policing kinder and gentler. And we wouldn’t have to turn officers into liars.

     Incidentally, if the notion of policing as a craft seems intriguing, your blogger delivered a paper on that topic during a visit to…Ukraine. But it’s all about America. Really. For the rest of the story, click here.

Did you enjoy this post? Be sure to explore the homepage and topical index!

Home   Top   Permalink     Print/Save     Feedback    


RELATED POSTS

An Illusory Consensus (I) (II)     Words Matter     Intended or Not, a Very Rough Ride     De-escalation

Who Wants to be a Millionaire     A Dead Marine     Homeless, Mentally Ill, Dead     Sometimes a Drunk

Every Cop Needs a Taser     Making Time     To Err is Human, to Prevent is Divine

When Cops Kill (I) (II)

RELATED ARTICLES

The Craft of Policing     Production and Craftsmanship in Police Narcotics Enforcement


Posted 2/16/16

WORKING SCARED

Fearful, ill-trained and poorly supervised cops are tragedies waiting to happen

   By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Keeping one’s gun holstered is a sine qua non of policing. It’s not just to avoid offending citizens. As experienced cops well know, and as hapless officers regularly discover, a gun needlessly in the hand is an accident waiting to happen. In an episode that took place only days ago, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s shot himself in the calf while pursuing car theft suspects on foot.

     Such events aren’t rare. Guns accidentally go off in police stations, cop’s garages, and during marksmanship sessions at the range. Sometimes the consequences are more than embarrassing. One small-town police chief has sheepishly admitted shooting himself twice. (For a host of examples plug “officer accidentally shoots himself” into Google.)

     It’s not only cops who get hurt. Not long ago a Colorado officer slipped on the ice and accidentally wounded the man he was pursuing. Of course, when the person shot is a crook or was aggressive, blame is easy to deflect; after all, policing is a tough job, and had the suspect behaved to start with, they’d be just fine. That rationale was used, with some success, to minimize the culpability of an Oakland transit cop who mistakenly drew and fired his sidearm instead of the Taser he had meant to deploy. Tough-minded prosecutors charged the officer with murder, but jurors took pity and convicted him of involuntary manslaughter. In the end, the former officer served a bit over one year. A civil suit against him went nowhere.

     These circumstances recently reoccurred in Tulsa. While assisting in an arrest, an elderly reserve deputy fired his gun, killing a suspect whom he intended to stun into compliance. Prosecutors charged the volunteer with the lesser form of manslaughter, which in Oklahoma carries a penalty of up to four years in prison or one year in jail. In an accidental shooting last November, rookie NYPD officer Peter Liang, 27, entered a dark stairwell while patrolling a high-rise in the projects. He drew his pistol for protection. (Liang’s partner, also a rookie, kept his gun holstered.) Liang would testify that he was startled by a noise and squeezed off a round. The bullet ricocheted off a wall and fatally wounded Akai Gurley, 28. He and his girlfriend had been using the stairs because the elevator was out. Last week a jury convicted officer Liang of manslaughter and official misconduct for failing to render aid. He faces up to fifteen years in prison. (His hapless partner was also fired, ostensibly for not providing aid to the dying man.)

     Mr. Gurley’s death was unintended. Not so the November 2014 shooting of Tamir Rice, the 12-year old Cleveland boy who flaunted a realistic-looking pellet gun. Neither Timothy Loehmann, the 26-year old rookie who shot him, nor his partner were charged.

Click here for the complete collection of use of force essays

     Prior posts have identified factors that can lead to the inappropriate use of lethal force. Some cops may be insufficiently risk-tolerant; others may be too impulsive. Poor tactics can leave little time to make an optimal decision. Less-than-lethal weapons may not be at hand, or officers may be unpracticed in their use. Cops may not know how to deal with the mentally ill, or may lack external supports for doing so. Dispatchers may fail to pass on crucial information, leaving cops guessing. And so on.

     Here we’ll take a different approach. Comparing the accidental killing of Akai Gurley with the deliberate shooting of Tamir Rice, we’ll examine whether these incidents are in fact as dissimilar as they seem.

     First, officers Liang and Loehmann were both young and inexperienced. Including the academy, Liang had worked for NYPD less than eighteen months. Loehmann was on the Cleveland force only eight months. He was previously a cop in Independence, a small town south of Cleveland, but left after only one month on the street.

     Substantial questions have been raised about both officers’ suitability for police work. A New York Times reporter who was at Liang’s trial characterized the defendant as “young, scared and unqualified to perform dangerous work…”  Loehmann was rejected by several agencies before being hired by Independence. According to a deputy chief, the recruit was “distracted” and “weepy” during firearms practice and seemed unlikely to improve:

    He could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections,
    and his handgun performance was dismal…I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to
    change or correct the deficiencies…

Loehmann resigned under pressure. Cleveland hired him anyway.

     During academy training recruits are obsessively cautioned about officer safety. Lectures and practical exercises harp on the fact that being careless can cost a cop’s life. Natch, in our gun-suffused land there is an unlimited supply of examples. (Indeed, while officer Liang’s trial was in progress, two NYPD officers were shot and wounded while patrolling – you guessed it – a housing project stairwell. The judge disallowed testimony about the episode.)

     Few officers are as nervous as recent grads. Of course, people are constantly doing crazy stuff, so it falls to field training officers to calm their junior partners and keep them from shooting citizens for pulling a tissue to blow their nose. What experienced cops well know, but for reasons of decorum rarely articulate, is that the real world isn’t the academy: on the mean streets officers must accept risks that instructors warn against, and doing so occasionally gets cops hurt or killed. Your blogger is unaware of any tolerable approach to policing a democratic society that resolves this dilemma, but if he learns of such a thing he will certainly pass it on.

     Alas, the hiring process isn’t infallible. Even good screening measures fail. That’s why it’s essential to closely monitor recruits in the academy and during their first years in the field. That’s not foolproof either. Every working officer knows cops who have poor people skills or are prone to overreact, leaving messes for colleagues to clean up. Fortunately, no one usually dies and things get papered over until next time.

     Occasionally, though, there is no “next time.”

UPDATE (5/30/17): Citing false statements he allegedly made when applying to join the force, Cleveland police fired Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot and killed Tamir Rice. His partner drew a 10-day suspension and retraining.

UPDATE (7/7/16): Two fatal shootings by police - one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 5, another in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota the following day - might bear on the issues discussed above. In Baton Rouge, a 911 caller said he was threatened by an armed man. On arrival two officers confronted Alton B. Sterling, 37, and shot him while they tussled on the ground. A gun was allegedly found. In Falcon Heights, Minnesota (a suburb of St. Paul) a police officer shot and killed Philando Castile during a seemingly routine traffic stop. According to a passenger, Castile informed the officer that he had a legal gun, and was shot when he reached for registration documents.

UPDATE (5/31/16): Robert Bates, 74, the Tulsa reserve deputy convicted of manslaughter, was sentenced to four years imprisonment.

Did you enjoy this post? Be sure to explore the homepage and topical index!

Home   Top   Permalink     Print/Save     Feedback    


RELATED POSTS

Is it Always About Race?     Good Guy/Bad Guy/Black Guy (I) (II)     Lessons of Ferguson

A Very Hot Summer     Three Perfect Storms     Homeless, Mentally Ill, Dead     Making Time

Sometimes a Drunk     It’s Now L.A.’s Problem   A Tragedy Yes, But Murder?     When Cops Kill (I) (II)


Posted 1/13/16

DE-ESCALATION:

CURE, BUZZWORD OR A BIT OF BOTH?

As bad shootings dominate the headlines, cops and politicians scramble for answers

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. In July 2004, the Department of Justice issued a biting report that criticized Newark cops for using force instead of acting, as reviewers thought they should, with “thick skin and patience.”

    Unfortunately, rather than using de-escalation techniques and acting within the constraints of the Constitution when confronted with disrespectful behavior, NPD has engaged in a pattern and practice of taking immediate offensive action, without regard to whether that conduct complies with the law.

     Newark isn’t alone. DOJ has been launching “pattern and practice” investigations of police departments throughout the U.S.  During the last five years alone, agencies ordered to change their ways include Albuquerque, Cleveland, East Haven (CT), Miami, New Orleans, Newark, Portland, Puerto Rico and Seattle. (Chicago went under the Federal microscope last month. More about that later.)

     Although the events that precipitated Federal intervention were in each case different, excessive force, and particularly the inappropriate use of lethal force, has been the main concern. DOJ’s slap-down of New Orleans cited “many instances in which NOPD officers used deadly force contrary to NOPD policy or law.” Once again, “de-escalation” figured prominently in the prescription for reform:

    Critical in-service topics include: use of force, firearms, defensive tactics, integrity and ethics, community policing, communication skills / de-escalation training, cultural competency, search and seizure, policies and procedures, and current legal developments….All force policies should guide officers on how to avoid even justifiable force where it is safe and effective to do so, through the use of de-escalation techniques and solid tactics.

     Miami conceded from the start that, yes, its officers had shot persons without sufficient justification. DOJ used these and other, similar events as evidence that turning to firearms when lesser force would suffice had become an integral component of the city’s policing culture: “Based on our comprehensive review, we find reasonable cause to believe that MPD engages in a pattern or practice of excessive use of force with respect to firearm discharges.” As had become routine, the need for “de-escalation” figured prominently in its recommendations:

    …a man known by MPD to have mental illness was shot after he lunged at officers with a broken bottle…Numerous officers unnecessarily surrounded the man, escalating the situation…Although MPD had a CIT officer on the scene, unlike other cases involving persons with mental illness, the supervising officers failed to control the scene so that the CIT officer could do his job. An alternative approach prioritizing de-escalation techniques might have eliminated the need to use deadly force.

     Use of force on mentally disturbed persons, drug users and veterans suffering from PTSD was the subject of “An Integrated Approach to De-Escalation and Minimizing Use of Force,” a symposium held three years ago by the Police Executive Research Forum, perhaps the nation’s leading voice in advancing the craft of policing. Here are some of its key conclusions:

  • Not every situation calls for police intervention, and not every refusal to comply with an officer’s order requires a forceful response.
     
  • “Slowing things down” can prevent tragic misperceptions, such as thinking someone is going for a gun when they’re actually reaching for a cell phone. Making time also gives time for backup officers, supervisors and crisis intervention teams to arrive.
     
  • De-escalating encounters, for example, by using verbal skills, can cool things down and prevent violence.

     Philadelphia PD’s E.A.R. strategy was featured as an example of this approach. It is comprised of three sequential elements: engage, assess, resolve.

    First, you should calmly engage the special needs person to make a connection; the first 10 seconds of this interaction are crucial. Ask the person his name and tell him your name…show empathy and make the person feel heard…Next, gather as much information as possible…Ask the person whether he has a medical condition, is receiving medical treatment, or is taking medication…Once you’ve assessed the person, start thinking about how to resolve the problem…When you have decided your course of action, be sure to announce your intentions…Let him know what you plan to do, and be patient and repetitive in your explanation.

Click here for the complete collection of use of force essays

     It’s been this writer’s experience that an informal version of E.A.R. is how most law enforcement officers handle most situations, most of the time. Along those lines, here’s an abridged version of what Steve Pomper, the author of a well-known police blog, had to say about de-escalation:

    As a retired cop who worked a sector with numerous mental health facilities let me assure you that de-escalation is nothing new to cops. De-escalation has always been and will always be a cop’s first instinct, although it’s not always possible. For example, it’s rather difficult to verbally de-escalate a person charging at you with a knife. Instructors taught de-escalation in the academy when I was there twenty-three years ago, and it was taught long before that. De-escalation is also just plain common sense, the natural inclination for intelligent people who prefer the path of least resistance—in this case, literally.

   Still, considering the many excesses that have come to light, “most of the time” may not be good enough. As if Chicago hasn’t experienced sufficient discord (see “Does Race Matter, Part I” for a gut-churning example), on December 26 one of its cops accidentally shot and killed a beloved grandmother while aiming for a mentally disturbed 19-year old who reportedly charged at officers with a baseball bat. (The youth was also shot and killed.)  And only days ago LAPD chief Charlie Beck recommended that one of his own cops be criminally prosecuted for shooting to death an unarmed, homeless man with whom officers had a “physical altercation” last May.

     Has the frequency of tragic goofs increased? Executives at the PERF forum expressed concern that the new breed of digitally-enlightened police officers may be less apt verbally and less skilled in unarmed combat than “past generations,” thus more inclined to resort to a weapon. Of course, today’s cops face an increasingly well-armed public. Indeed, the consequences of America’s love affair with the .44 magnum are well known in Chicago, where murder jumped 12.5 percent during 2014-2015, reaching 468, reportedly a U.S. high. Active shooters have become commonplace, occasionally with consequences so grim that patrol officers are being trained to engage threats instead of waiting for SWAT.

     There is another, equally intractable problem. If it’s true that most cops prefer to be kind and gentle, that still leaves some who don’t, or won’t. Numerous citizen complaints, mostly about excessive force, dogged the Chicago cop who now faces murder charges for gunning down Laquan McDonald. As DOJ’s findings in Miami demonstrate, it only takes a few trigger-happy officers to cause havoc:

    Finally, a small number of officers were involved in a disproportionate number of shootings. A combination of seven officers participated in over a third of the 33 officer-involved shootings. Had the shooting investigations been completed in a timely fashion, corrective action could have been undertaken and may have prevented the harm that can result from officers’ repeated shootings, such as injury or death to the officer and/or the subject, trauma to the officer and others, and costly legal settlements….

So far it’s been up to police executives and, on rare occasions, prosecutors and the courts to remove dangerous cops from the streets. But policing is in fact a licensed occupation. To that extent it’s not so different in kind from vocations such as plumbing and electrical repair, architecture, law and medicine. If cities are unwilling to enforce professional standards, perhaps state peace officer boards, which set the requirements for officer certification in the first place, ought to step in.

     In any event, the training bandwagon has already left the station. Four days after the grandmother was shot dead, the windy city’s embattled mayor announced a set of reforms to “inject humanity” into policing. Rahm Emanuel solemnly promised that officers will be trained to avoid reflexively using deadly force. They will learn to create “more time and distance” when responding to tense situations and to recognize “degrees in between.” And just in case the soft approach doesn’t work, every beat car will be equipped with a Taser.

     Let’s hope that this medicine takes hold. We really don’t want to revisit Chicago’s woes anytime soon.

UPDATE (4/19/17): By unanimous vote the LAPD Commission formally incorporated de-escalation into the agency’s use of force policy, “using time, distance, communications, and available resources...whenever it is safe and reasonable to do so.” Click here for the Los Angeles Times article.

UPDATE (2/16/17): A 42-State survey by the Council of State Governments reveals that forty have statewide standards for law enforcement de-escalation training, mostly for entry-level employees.

Did you enjoy this post? Be sure to explore the homepage and topical index!

Home   Top   Permalink     Print/Save     Feedback    


RELATED POSTS

An Illusory Consensus (I) (II)     Words Matter     Intended or Not, a Very Rough Ride     Role Reversal

More Rules, Less Force?     Does Race Matter? (Part I Part II)    Lessons of Ferguson

A Very Hot Summer     Three Perfect Storms     A Dead Marine     First, Do No Harm

Homeless, Mentally Ill, Dead     Making Time     When Cops Kill (Part I Part II)


Top

 


Home               About           Index           Links         Educators         Contact         Class site       Novel