Guest Editorial: Data on shootings is limited

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Nov. 24
Guest Editorial

Better data on police shootings is a vital need.

Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., 15 months ago created a national controversy about police shootings, a few things have become abundantly clear:

  •  Many Americans don’t regard police shootings as a major problem. This is the “if you don’t want to get shot, obey the law” crowd.
  • Minority communities, disproportionately affected by the problem, disagree strenuously.
  • Police officers have extraordinary legal latitude in deciding when to use deadly force.
  • America does a terrible job of keeping track of police shooting incidents. That it took so long to recognize this is a mark of how casually official America took the problem — which is a problem within a problem.

All of this suggests that criminologists at the University of Missouri-St. Louis may be onto something with an in-depth analysis breaking down 10 years of police shooting incidents involving St. Louis city police officers.

“Our hope is to get other agencies around the country to participate as well, so we can get insight into the very important question on whether what we found in St. Louis is happening around the country,” UMSL’s David Klinger told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Klinger, with colleagues Richard Rosenfeld, Dan Isom and Mike Deckard, examined 239 incidents between 2003 and 2012 in which 315 city officers intentionally fired their weapons at a total of 251 suspects. Thirty-seven suspects were killed. Ninety-two percent of them were black. In 117 of the cases, the shots missed.

By examining nonfatal shootings, and indeed, shootings where nobody was hit, the UMSL study goes far deeper than other analyses have gone. Though every incident is different, it suggests patterns.

One of them is geography. The logical supposition would be that police officers would be more likely to fire their weapons in the areas where crime was highest. This turns out not to be the case, and in that there are the seeds of controversy.

Police shootings were more prevalent in census blocks with elevated levels of firearms violence, but were somewhat less likely than in blocks with the highest levels of such violence. The sample size is too small to draw definite conclusions, but Rosenfeld suggested that police and criminals alike might be more wary in areas known to be dangerous.

Isom, who was the city’s police chief for about half the study period and before that, head of the Division of Internal Affairs that investigated police shootings, suggested an alternate reason: Officers don’t engage with the community or enforce the law as aggressively in the highest-crime neighborhoods.

Whatever theory is correct, everything changed in August 2014, when Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. The civil unrest that followed, and the subsequent deaths of black men and boys by mostly white police officers around the country, has riven America.

That there aren’t even good data to use in studying the problem shocked FBI director James Comey, whose bureau is supposed to be on top of crime statistics. He called it “unacceptable” that media organizations, including the Washington Post and the British newspaper The Guardian, are compiling more reliable databases.

The FBI annually compiles its Uniform Crime Statistics, which are based on the voluntary cooperation of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies. Cooperation is haphazard. Some of the biggest states — New York, Florida and Illinois among them — don’t bother to report certain kinds of incidents, among them justifiable homicide. Since nearly all killings by police officers are ruled as justified, the problem is obvious.

This ought to be an easy fix. Nearly every police agency depends in one way or another on federal grants. If you take the feds’ money, you play by the feds’ rules.

There are too many guys with too many guns. Some of them are bad guys; others are just dumb kids who have been raised in a culture that offers them few options other than street crime. The culture has to change, but that can take decades.

Police officers are human beings who want to go home at the end of their shifts. They have been trained, many of them, in a culture that hasn’t made them fully accountable. Their culture needs to change, too, but it can’t take decades.

It’s nuts that the nation doesn’t have the kind of data it needs to help make fast, smart changes.