One of the most important reforms that could grow out of the Aug. 9 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, experts say, would be the creation of a national database containing detailed information about all police shootings, whether or not suspects are wounded or killed.
On this much experts agree. But beneath that agreement, the debate about police use of force is fraught with sharp disagreements about how important a factor race plays.
Some researchers say that race triggers shootings by white police officers because whites feel more threatened by black faces than white faces. Other researchers say white officers are no more likely to shoot armed blacks than armed whites, and that police shootings relate more to the level of gun violence in an area than the race of the suspect.
An October ProPublica study, much cited in the media, seems to support the first view. A study of 230 police shootings in St. Louis over the past decade seems to support the latter. More on those studies later.
Police kill many more civilians than their departments officially report. Police – black and white – shoot a higher proportion of young blacks than young whites. And the number of civilians killed by police on the street without trial is many times higher than the number of prisoners executed on death row after trials.
Despite the significance and frequency of police shootings and their potential to divide society, the nation doesn’t have a reliable database of police shootings with the information needed for police reforms that might avert future Fergusons.
There are no reliable statistics on how often police officers shoot or kill civilians.
David Klinger, a former police officer and current criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said there are three official sources of information, all of them imperfect: the FBI Supplemental Homicide Report, the Centers for Disease Control and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Much of the media coverage cites the FBI Supplemental Homicide report where local jurisdictions are asked to report police shootings that result in death. In 2013, the FBI report listed 461 justifiable homicides, on the high end of the 400 annual average.
But the FBI number undercounts the police shootings, say Klinger and other researchers.
The Wall Street Journal detailed the deficiencies in the FBI statistics last week (Dec 3). It discovered that “the latest data from 105 of the country’s largest police agencies found more than 550 police killings during (2007-2012) were missing from the national tally or, in a few dozen cases, not attributed to the agency involved. The result: It is nearly impossible to determine how many people are killed by the police each year.”
The Journal tallied 1,825 police killings in those 105 departments; that’s 47 percent more than the FBI statistics showed for those districts. In other words, there are a lot more police killings than the official numbers show.
Illinois, New York and Florida have reported almost no figures. Washington, D.C,. hasn’t reported police shooting deaths since 1998. Other big jurisdictions that reported little or no data, the Journal reported, include New York City, Miami-Dade County and Arlington, Va.
“What everyone agrees on,” Klinger said, “is that we need a national database of all officer involved shootings – doesn’t matter if the victim is white, black, Asian or Hispanic. We want to know where do they occur and the patterns of how shootings occur so that we can change training.”
The FBI statistics have “only dead bodies,” but suspects survive in the lion’s share of shootings, he said. “Many times officers don’t hit anyone. What we want to know is how often do the cops shoot and under what circumstances?”
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has put a national database of police shootings high on its list of proposed reforms in the wake of the Michael Brown killing. Klinger is working with the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., to set up such a national database.
He finds it ironic that most research on the exercise of fatal state power is focused on the death penalty even though far more civilians are killed by police officers shooting suspects in public. St. Louis city police killed four times more suspects between 2003-12 than Missouri executed.
ProPublica’s questionable findings
An article of faith among those protesting Brown’s death and among much of the media writing about the protests is that young African-American men are far more likely to be shot by police than young white men.
Much of the national media – The New York Times, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, Daily Kos, Daily Beast and Vox among others – have quoted an October ProPublica study of FBI data showing that between 2010 and 2012, black males 15 to 19 years old were 21 times more likely than white males that age to be killed by police.
What hasn’t gotten attention is that leading criminologists criticize the ProPublica findings as exaggerated. It’s true that black youths are killed more often than white youths, the critics agree, but the disparity over the past 15 years is much lower than the three-year period featured by ProPublica. The longer period is more statistically accurate, they say.
Klinger doesn’t mince words: “The ProPublica thing needs to be shut down. They cherry picked the three years that had the worst disparity instead of being honest about the whole picture
"The ProPublica analysis is absolute garbage because it is based on the FBI’s supplemental homicide reports. I told them, don't do it because the stats are horseshit.”
When ProPublica went ahead with the report and then quoted Klinger, the criminologist demanded that the news organization remove his name from the story, but it refused.
Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer and now criminology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice called the ProPublica study “substantially wrong.” In his “Cop in the Hood” blog, Moskos wrote that the 21:1 ratio is the result of the way ProPublica parsed the data – analyzing three years instead of 15, eliminating Hispanic youths from the category of whites and focusing on young victims rather than all victims.
Looking at the bigger, 15-year picture, Moskos found that black youths were nine times more likely than white youths to be killed by officers. Including Hispanics among whites cut the ratio to 5.5:1. Including victims of all ages reduced the ratio to 4:1. One reason that the three-year period cited by ProPublica gave such a high ratio is that only one non-Hispanic white was killed in 2010, skewing the figures.
If police are more likely to kill blacks than whites, does it matter if the ratio is 21:1, 9:1 or 4:1?
Here’s what Moskos wrote. “You may wonder why I'm quibbling. What's my point? Well, it's important to base opinions and public policy on fact. And for starters, 4 to 1 versus 21 to 1 is a huge difference.”
Moskos also argued that blacks are more likely to be shot by police because they are in places where police engage violent criminals.
“In the population examined by ProPublica – the same subset in which blacks are 9 times (not 21 times) as likely as whites to be killed by police – the black-to-white homicide ratio is 15:1,” he wrote. “We know police-involved homicides correlate with homicide and violence in the community they police. So, what rate of disparity would one expect in police-involved homicides? Certainly not 1 to 1.”
A blue and black problem?
Ryan Gabrielson, one of the ProPublica reporters, denies focusing on the worst years. “We weren’t cherry picking years,” he said in an interview. “We looked at all of the years. But we were looking at what is happening in the most recent years. The disparity is growing.”
Gabrielson agreed that “there is some relationship” between the high black homicide rate and the higher proportion of black youths killed by police. But he said there wasn’t enough information to tease out causality.
Gabrielson also defended separating Hispanics from whites. “I’m from Arizona,” he said. “I think you have to separate Hispanics and whites.”
One interesting finding of the ProPublica study is that black police officers also kill black suspects at a higher rate than white suspects. About 78 percent of the civilian victims of black officers are black. “I don’t know if it is black and white problem or more a blue and black problem,” Gabrielson said.
St. Louis – Race vs. dangerous neighborhood
Klinger and fellow researchers examined all 230 police shootings in the City of St. Louis from 2003-2012. In half the cases, police missed when they fired at suspects. In 37 cases, police killed the civilian – 30 of those were African-Americans. That means 81 percent of those killed in police shootings were black in a city that is 50 percent black.
Klinger accessed the kind of detailed data that often is lacking in other studies. From the police department case files, he obtained descriptive information about each incident: date, time, location, number of officers present, number of suspects present and the number of shots fired. He also had information about the officers, including their sex, race, age, years in service and weapon type. And he got descriptive information about the suspects such as demographic characteristics, weapons possessed, the number of shots officers fired at them and the degree of injury.
The researchers then assigned the shootings to the census blocks where they occurred to see how the number of shootings related to factors such as the race, poverty and the level of gun violence in the census block.
Klinger, in an academic paper under review, found that the single factor that correlated most closely to the police shootings was the level of firearms violence in the area where the shooting occurred. This factor was more important than race or the poverty of the area, although the areas where firearms violence was the highest were also heavily black neighborhoods.
Pushing buttons, firing lasers
Marcia McCormick, a criminal law professor at Saint Louis University, thinks race is a key factor in police shootings of blacks. There is extensive social science research showing that whites are more likely to use force on blacks than on whites, she said.
“There are numerous studies that have shown in lab settings that people interpret the same conduct differently when engaged in by black people than by white people,” she said. “Because so many small decisions lead up to the eventual decision to use deadly force, it seems likely that the aggregate of the effects of giving members of one race more leeway or interpreting their actions more generously would lead to less use of deadly force in that group.”
McCormick cites the work of Jennifer Eberhardt, a psychology professor at Stanford University.
For her experiments, Eberhardt divides white graduate students into three groups, all of which see momentary flashes of light on a screen. The flashes are so fast that they cannot be processed rationally but rather subliminally prime the students. One group is primed with black faces, one white faces and the third with no faces.
Then all of the students are shown objects in a visually degraded form that gradually comes into focus. Some of the objects are dangerous, such as guns and knives. Eberhardt finds that white students primed by having been shown black faces take far less time to recognize the dangerous objects than the students primed by white faces.
Translated into the real world, this could mean that white officers are more likely to see a threat when they see a black suspect than a white one.
Klinger noted these button-pushing studies do not recreate the real world of police confronting suspects. The button-pushing visuals are two-dimensional, not three. Also pushing buttons isn’t like pulling a trigger, he says.
So Klinger and fellow researchers created three-dimensional, full-size, high definition video to show subjects realistic scenarios where officers confront suspects on the street. The research subjects had real guns that had been modified to fire laser pulses.
The study found that the subjects were more likely to feel threatened in scenarios involving blacks but took longer to pull the trigger when faced by an armed black suspect than an armed white or Hispanic suspect. The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology this year.
“What we found,” said Klinger, “was that research subjects, including police officers, are slower to shoot threatening black actors than white or Hispanic actors.”
U.N. Torture Committee
One other study of police shootings that has gotten attention in St. Louis and an important international forum is the Malcolm X Grassroots movement study that found 313 “extrajudicial killings” in 2012, or one every 28 hours.
The Malcolm X study is not of the same caliber as the careful ProPublica data analysis. It was conducted by an advocacy group that maintains the extent of black killings by police is hidden by the U.S. government and “the corporate media … permeated with white supremacist and capitalist assumptions.”
But the study got attention as part of the written brief that Saint Louis University law professor Justin Hansford presented in November to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. This month, the committee expressed its concern about U.S. police tactics and the grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.
“Among many community groups across the U.S. that have noted a pattern of law enforcement killing unarmed black persons, (the) community-based group the Malcolm X Grassroots Project found that there were 313 black people killed by the police, security guards or vigilantes in 2012 alone – or one person every 28 hours. Nearly half of those individuals were unarmed. The report notes that these numbers likely fall short of reality, due to the dearth of nation-wide statistics. The killing of Mike Brown and the abandonment of his body in the middle of a neighborhood street is but an example of the utter lack of regard for, and indeed dehumanization of, black lives by law enforcement personnel.”
But a case-by-case review of the Malcolm X study shows that only 134 of the 313 blacks killed were unarmed. Of those unarmed people, 55 were driving cars at a police officer when shot or were fleeing at high speeds – both situations in which police are authorized to use deadly force. Another 23 suspects were shot by security guards or private citizens, not police. About 20 died after police used a taser rather than deadly force. That leaves 35 cases where police killed unarmed suspects; many of these resulted in prosecutions.
Hansford did not respond to an email request for a comment.