What Do the Numbers Tell Us?
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), over 75 million times a year police make direct contact with the community. Also, the BJS reports there are a little over 700,00 police officers in general-purpose law enforcement agencies. If we were to add in another 100,000 federal law enforcement and 60,000 special jurisdiction police (campus, parks, etc.), policing in America has 860,000 officers. To put this all in perspective, a police population the size of Indianapolis interacts with the most heavily armed population in the world. That is about 120 guns for every 100 people, 75 million times a year.
Is one to think that occasionally, some of those interactions will not result in fatal shootings? According to the Washington Post database they do, about 1,000 times a year. Doing the math, about 60% of people shot and killed by police are armed with a gun. This is 11 gun-armed people every week in the U.S.
Nationally, 2019 showed us 399 people not armed with a gun were shot and killed. Of those, 55 were classified as unarmed, many of them had some other weapon. For example, 142 had a knife, seven had an ax, seven a sword and 27 had toy weapons. The latter were not lethal, but also a misnomer. Replicas, today, are often more realistic. Split-second decisions many officers have to make as to whether a person is armed with a toy weapon can result in mistakes being made. We also don’t know how many people armed with toy weapons are not shot and killed by police during those instances. Even at the best of times, its difficult to tell the differences.
Of the 203 left by excluding those armed with a gun, knife, samurai sword, sword, taser, ax, machete, nail gun, bean-bag gun or toy weapon, what is the distribution of race/ethnicity? Of those, 84 were white, 43 black, 36 Hispanic and the remaining 40 are other or information was not available. Using police-community interaction rates, this renders 4.6 unarmed police shootings per million contacts for blacks, 3.7 for Hispanics, and 1.6 for whites.
For victims, families and communities, every shooting is a tragedy. Absolutely they should be reduced to zero. Is this a realistic goal? These occur at a rate of less than one in a million overall police-community interactions. A majority of police officers would support a goal of zero unnecessary police shootings. But, we know it is probably unrealistic as well. It is clearly important to minimize this number, but with 75 million interactions between armed police and heavily armed citizenry, bad events are going to happen.
There is some merit in reducing the number of police-community contacts. There are many instances where police would prefer to not attend as those would be better dealt with by social workers and mental health professionals. Equally, there is evidence under-policing could pose danger to people in high crime communities.
The question remains, what should we do? All police shootings should be swiftly, thoroughly and transparently investigated by an external agency. Mistakes should be acknowledged and learned from as officers involved in egregious shootings should be allowed the right of due process and from those decisions applicable judgements be applied. There also needs to be a national effort to examine each of these shootings to understand the situational and policy lessons like the NTSB does with aircraft safety.
We also have to decide if the rampant and largely unrestricted gun ownership level in the country affects the police-community contacts. In 2019, 48 police officers were killed by gunfire. Will reducing the number of guns in the US improve safety for both the community and law enforcement?
Several changes have already been decided and mandated in regards to use of force. Some current de-escalation policies can prolong an incident and inadvertently allowed them to escalate. We need to adapt to an evidence-based perspective before mandating policies that potentially cause more harm.