Why we can't reform our cops: Race, guns and the failure to police the police

Police kill an average of three people per day. It does not have to be this way, yet never seems to change

Published May 1, 2016 6:00PM (EDT)

 Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry (Warner Bros. Entertainment)
Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Excerpted from "Handcuffed: What Holds Policing Back, and the Keys to Reform"

On April 4, 2015, a black man, Walter Scott, was shot dead by North Charleston police officer Michael Slager following a routine traffic stop for a defective brake light. Scott fled on foot, possibly because he was afraid of going to jail for failing to make child support payments. A video taken by a bystander captured the later stages of the foot pursuit and clearly showed Officer Slager discharging eight rounds from his service weapon as Scott was running away from him. Five of the bullets hit Scott, who died at the scene.

We learn more about the problem of police violence and how it can persist and might be covered up when a video only surfaces after some significant delay. That allows time for the police to provide their account of the incident before the video evidence is available, and possibly before they even know that any video recording exists. In the case of Walter Scott’s death, it took more than two days before the video became available to authorities. Feidin Santana, who captured the shooting on his cellphone camera, initially kept quiet about the video, fearing retribution, but was angered when he heard the police account of the incident and made the recording available to Scott’s family and to the media.

Presumably Officer Slager, in providing his initial account of the incident, had no idea that any video existed. He claimed that Scott, during a scuffle, reached for the Taser on his (Officer Slager’s) belt, and that he (Slager), therefore, felt his own life was in danger. He immediately gave an explanation over the police radio—“Shots fired and the subject is down; he took my Taser”—knowing that such transmissions are recorded, hence, putting his story on the record.

Without the video evidence, that story might well have stood. But the video became public on April 7, showing Slager repeatedly firing at Scott as he ran away, and Slager was arrested within a few hours and charged with murder.

The video of Scott’s shooting immediately went viral, of course, along with the revelations about Slager’s original and clearly false account. For the general public, the case raises serious concerns about other police incidents not captured on video, where there is little or no objective evidence about what happened, and where officers provide similar justifications for shooting an unarmed person. How often do stories such as Slager’s get told? What chance is there that investigations into officer-involved shootings—typically conducted by detectives from the same department (that is, by the involved officer’s own colleagues)—will actually establish the truth? How widespread is the practice of lying to conceal police abuse of force?

It would be interesting to know some basic facts and figures. For instance, how many times a year do American police officers shoot unarmed suspects and subsequently justify their actions by claiming they felt their own life was in immediate danger, either because the suspect appeared to be about to pull something out of a pocket or, in the course of a scuffle, the suspect seemed to be reaching for the officer’s own weapon? In the absence of witnesses or video evidence or contradictory forensic evidence, such accounts are unlikely to be refuted. Such incidents would normally end up classified as justifiable homicides—or, to use the peculiar language of the police profession, as “good shootings.”

The fact of the matter is that we have no idea how often this happens, as the United States does not gather any reliable national statistics on officer-involved shootings, or on other deaths at the hands of police, or on deaths that occur in police custody. Federal databases exist, but submission of those data by law enforcement agencies remains voluntary and is, consequently, acknowledged to be woefully incomplete.

Why can the United States not produce reliable statistics on the number of civilians shot and killed by police? The usual explanations point to the difficulty of categorizing incidents in sufficiently consistent ways to make the figures meaningful, as well as the cost and difficulties involved in gathering data from the roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies that operate in America. But it seems incongruous that the U.S. federal government manages to report annually and nationwide (through the Uniform Crime Reports) on matters such as burglaries, larcenies, robberies, and sexual assaults—where all the same definitional complexities and data collection difficulties apply—but they cannot do the same when it comes to officer-involved shootings despite the fact that these events are much less numerous, somewhat easier to define, and much more significant.

In an attempt to fill the information vacuum, the Washington Post began compiling a database of every fatal shooting by police in 2015, as well as of every officer killed by gunfire in the line of duty. The study focused only on fatal shootings, and, therefore, did not include other deaths at the hands of police, or deaths in police custody, or nonfatal shootings. Even so, the Post’s tally as of December 24, 2015, was 965, which equates to roughly 2.7 people shot dead by police, on average, per day. This is more than double the rate revealed by the official statistics compiled at the federal level for previous years. Analysis conducted by the Washington Post showed that at least 243 (25 percent) of the 965 shot dead showed signs of mental illness at the time they died at the hands of police.

 The Guardian newspaper, which also tracked the number of people killed by U.S. police in 2015 (whether by shooting or otherwise), showed a year-end tally of 1,134. According to the Guardian’s crowd-sourced information, 1,010 of these deaths were by gunshot. Their analysis also showed black people were killed by police at more than double the rate for whites and Hispanics/Latinos. Of the African Americans killed by police, 25 percent were unarmed, while 17 percent of the whites killed were unarmed. According to the Washington Post’s analysis of 385 police shootings that occurred during the first five months of 2015, officers had been charged in only three cases. Officer Slager in North Charleston was one of these. In all three cases that led to indictments against police officers, video evidence had surfaced that showed officers shooting suspects during or at the end of pursuits on foot.

In a different study using multiyear data, the Washington Post examined the rate at which police officers were charged as a result of fatal shootings. They found only fifty-four cases where officers had been charged since 2005, representing a tiny fraction of the thousands of police shooting incidents that had occurred in a decade.

The Post’s analysis showed that in most of the cases where prosecutors did press charges the victim was unarmed, and there were also “other factors that made the case exceptional, including: a victim shot in the back, a video recording of the incident, incriminating testimony from other officers, or allegations of a cover-up.” According to prosecutors interviewed by the Post, to charge a police officer requires “compelling proof that at the time of the shooting the victim posed no threat either to the officer or to bystanders.” Absent one of these exceptional factors, it seems generally impossible to disprove officers’ claims that they felt themselves endangered. According to Philip Stinson, one of the criminologists working with the Post on the study, “To charge an officer in a fatal shooting, it takes something so egregious, so over the top that it cannot be explained in any rational way.”

Even where individual killings are justified, the patterns of practice that result in so many deaths can still be alarming. Ronald L. Davis, head of the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, told the Post reporters, “We have to get beyond what is legal and start focusing on what is preventable. Most [police shootings] are preventable.” According to the Department of Justice, “The shooting of unarmed people who pose no threat is disturbingly common.”

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which released its final report in May 2015, addressed the need for reliable data on police use of force and the need to bolster the credibility and independence of investigations into use-of-force incidents. With respect to the gathering of data, the task force noted the existence of voluntary reporting programs on arrest-related and in-custody deaths, but recommended mandating law enforcement agencies to “collect, maintain, and report data to the Federal Government on all officer-involved shootings, whether fatal or nonfatal, as well as any in-custody death.” The task force also recommended mandating “external and independent criminal investigations in cases of police use of force resulting in death, officer-involved shootings resulting in injury or death, and in-custody deaths.”

Baltimore, April 2015

On April 12, 2015, Baltimore police arrested Freddie Carlos Gray Jr., a twenty-five- year- old African American man. Gray had run away from police, even though the police did not know why. They gave chase and apprehended him, alleging that he was in possession of an illegal switchblade. The arrest itself was videotaped by bystanders, but did not appear violent. Gray was handcuffed and transported to a police station in a van without being secured by a seatbelt as departmental policy requires. At the end of the trip, Gray was in a coma and was taken to a trauma center. He died on April 19 from spinal cord injuries. Six Baltimore police officers were immediately suspended and have since been criminally charged with various counts relating to Gray’s death.

Protests over Gray’s death in Baltimore were mostly peaceful, but turned violent the day of his funeral and resulted in millions of dollars’ worth of looting, property damage, and destruction within the city. The violence was short-lived, however (partly due to the imposition of a citywide curfew and influx of substantial law-enforcement assistance), and appears in retrospect largely attributable to the coordinated actions of opportunistic high-school kids intent on looting and capitalizing on the unrest. Some of the criminal opportunism seems to have been highly targeted. During the rioting, thirty-seven pharmacies in Baltimore were entered, and oxycodone availability on the streets reached unprecedented levels shortly thereafter.

Baltimore’s police commissioner, Anthony Batts, who had been brought in from Oakland in 2012 to reform the Baltimore Police Department, asked the Department of Justice to come in and conduct a systematic review of Baltimore’s departmental policies and practices.

The fact that the Department of Justice has the power to examine and intervene in the practices of local police departments is a curious legacy of the videotaped beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department in March 1991. The Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 contains a provision inserted as a result of the reforming efforts of Representative Henry Waxman of California. This provision makes it illegal to “engage in a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers [or other officials within the criminal justice system] that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”

The 1994 act also grants the attorney general of the United States, given reasonable cause to believe that such a violation has occurred, the right to intervene “to obtain appropriate equitable and declaratory relief to eliminate the pattern or practice.” Over the last twenty years, this provision has provided the foundation for federal intervention into local policing issues and the imposition of consent decrees on numerous major city police departments, especially when infringements of constitutional rights are alleged. It provides an important opportunity for national values and constitutional rights to be reasserted when local police management conceals patterns of abuse or fails to control officers’ conduct, when departmental culture stifles or defeats local reform efforts, or, for that matter, when local leaders completely lose their moral bearings.

Excerpted from "Handcuffed: What Holds Policing Back, and the Keys to Reform" by Malcolm K. Sparrow. Published by Brookings Institution Press. Copyright © 2016 by Malcolm K. Sparrow. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Malcolm K. Sparrow

Malcolm K. Sparrow is Professor of the Practice of Public Management at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government

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