Why aren’t there a lot more police shootings in the U.S.?

The other day I was driving out to the drug testing facility to surprise myself with one of the random drug tests that are required of single-pilot charter operations (see this 2011 posting). It was about 11:00 am on a sunny day in a low-crime area. A young woman was stalled in the middle of the road in an old Volkswagen Golf. I would have stopped to help her except that I saw that a local police officer was already in the process of doing so. Then I looked a little closer and saw that he was approaching her car with one hand on his gun (presumably concerned about being one of the 30 American police officers shot and killed annually (Economist), though on average being a police officer is not very dangerous and most of the risk is from transportation accidents (BLS; TIME magazine)).

Given that not every situation is as unambiguously safe as this one (daylight, no rain or mist, no obvious reason why you’d want to stop in the middle of the road before shooting someone) and the fact that the guy was at all times just a second or two away from shooting his gun I wondered why incidents like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri aren’t more frequent. (I did a quick Google News search for “police shoot unarmed” and discovered this article about Levar Jones being shot in South Carolina on September 4 as well as a few others.)

Newspapers after Ferguson seem to be asking the question “Why are so many citizens shot by police?” Given the 780,000 police officers out there (source: BLS), if most are armed and trained like the one that I saw approaching this disabled motorist, wouldn’t a better question be “Why are there so few shootings of unarmed people by American police?”

12 thoughts on “Why aren’t there a lot more police shootings in the U.S.?

  1. Hopefully cheap, ubiquitous cameras help weed out trigger happy cops. Video from this episode in South Carolina, and the Oscar Grant episode in Oakland (caught on bystander’s cell phones), made it clear the police were using excessive violence. Without the video, the cops can just lie their way out of justice, confident the “law” is on their side.

  2. I’m not usually one to defend the police in the USA, who in general seem pretty out of control. But it does seem like there are many possible reasons less benign than a mechanical problem for a car to be stopped in the middle of the road. Like the car being stolen by someone who is unfamiliar with the vehicle and nervous and not a very experienced driver, or a violent scuffle inside the car. I’m not saying these are highly likely, but they’re not *that* unlikely. Certainly likely enough that the possibility of something other than mechanical trouble should be accounted for in the standard police protocol for approaching a stopped vehicle.

  3. I think there is a complete difference between an officer approaching an unknown situation with his (or her) hand on his (holstered) gun out of an abundance of caution and as a sort of security blanket or nervous tic and actually pulling that gun out, releasing the safety and shooting an innocent person. The reason there are comparatively few shootings is that one does not lead to the other unless the officer makes a very conscious decision to shoot.

    In those situations like Ferguson, the officer (in most cases) has reason to be very nervous even if he is ultimately wrong. For example, Michael Brown had apparently tried to get the officer’s gun away from him. It pays to wait and hear the conclusion of the grand or trial jury and not rely on media or witness accounts which may be one sided and unreliable. According to the press reports, George Zimmerman was guilty, guilty guilty but the jury that heard all the evidence thought otherwise. I would withhold judgment on Ferguson until we know more.

    When I lived in NY in the late ’70s, the Brinks guards not only had their hands ON their pistols but they carried them in their hands and waved them around when they were picking up cash from banks – I think this was after a number of incidents where robbers got the drop on them and shot them in cold blood. I’ll admit it was not a comfortable feeling being around guys holding pistols in their hands but I understand why they did it and I didn’t hear of them actually shooting any innocents.

  4. You would think that police training would preclude errors whereby innocent civilians are shot and killed during routine police activity, and that such shootings would be very rare, but it is not so, at least in my home town (NYC).

    To wit:

    Amadou Diallo, 1999 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shooting_of_Amadou_Diallo)

    Sean Bell shooting incident, 2006 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sean_Bell_shooting_incident)

    Patrick Dorismond, 2000 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Dorismond)

    Noel Polanco 2012 (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/05/nyregion/police-stop-and-fatally-shoot-unarmed-driver-on-a-parkway-in-queens.html?pagewanted=all)

    But police errors are not limited to shootings. Recently in NYC a routine arrest led to the arrested man’s death, by a presumably inappropriate police procedure (chokeholds during arrests are forbidden by NYPD): the Eric Garner case (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/20/nyregion/eric-garner-staten-island-police-chokehold-case-to-go-to-grand-jury.html ). It doesn’t help the NYPD’s case that the incident was recorded on video a by stander’s cell phone and circulate on YouTube.
    As the NY Times reports in the above Garner story, “Legal experts and former prosecutors said that despite the medical examiner’s ruling the death a homicide, murder charges seemed unlikely because the episode that ended with Mr. Garner’s death on July 17 began as a routine arrest. Officers are generally given wide latitude to use force within department guidelines and their professional judgment.” The perception and outrage among many in the community is that cops literally “get away with murder.” The bitterness and resentment of the police remains long after and are costly to the city, as settlements and judgments cost NYC millions. You can only imagine the suffering of the family of the deceased.

  5. Tippler,

    You mentioned 4 shootings over a 15 year period in a city of 8 million. I would say that is pretty rare. By comparison, so far just in 2014, 6 people in Florida have been killed by lightning strikes.

    It’s impossible to preclude all errors – police officers are human and humans make errors. It’s always horrific when this happens but it’s really not a major problem in our society – these incidents get magnified because there is often a racial angle. Poor communities do have a problem with people getting shot but 99% of the time, it’s drug dealers and gang members doing the shooting. Even today, when NYC homicides are at record lows, there is still roughly 1 murder every day. But those are “dog bites man” stories and get little or no press.

  6. The 4 shootings listed by Tippler are simply the ones that are well known. This wikipedia page lists killing by police in the US. It links to a page broken down by years, and each year has a page for each month. There have already been more than 4 deaths from police within NY this year alone. They don’t all make national news.

    For a daily look at national police misconduct (much more than just shootings), read the Cato Institute’s Police Misconduct blog.

    With just a little observation, you’ll notice that calling the police for help may be the most dangerous thing you can do. This story tells of a homeowner that called cops for a home invasion. He was shot in the back and the offending cops tried to cover it up but were recorded by the 911 call that was still live.

    Phil is right to wonder about the number of shootings. They are way too high, but many people have a knee-jerk defense of the police and assume that they are the good guys and the dead guy was bad (unless he fits a profile that will forward certain political agendas). The entire method of policing in this country needs to be reexamined.

  7. Police shootings are a natural result of having an armed police force which in turn are a natural result of having an armed and violent society. Objectively, police work is not particularly dangerous but police PERCEIVE themselves (esp. in urban areas) as being targets and not entirely without reason:


    While shootings of officers are rare, they are not unheard of. The attitude of the average police officer is, if it is a choice between giving the civilian the benefit of the doubt and ending up in a box or giving yourself the benefit of the doubt and going home that night to your family, they will choose themselves every time. If you were a police officer, you might do the same.

    Keep in mind also, that while police officers don’t get shot at every day, their job requires them to be in daily contact with the type of people you have probably done your best to construct your life to avoid at all costs. This tends to give policemen a jaded view of human nature – it is hard to assume the best about people when most of the people you have to deal with are the dregs of mankind.

  8. To be fair, there is also a lot of muscle memory going on, as well as a slight comfort factor.

    When wearing a bulky retention holster with a full-size pistol (as most uniformed patrol officers do), you tend to position it on the belt at the natural drop point for your hand. This promotes a solid firing grip and is easy to drive your hand to during a sudden need to get the weapon out.

    It also places the weapon in a spot that directly interferes with the natural position of the arm when walking normally. Often, it isn’t intended to be an aggressive move of posturing to prepare for an attack; cops just naturally rest their hand on the grip of their weapon.

    Many departments are switching to external ballistics vests more akin to military body armor as they are more comfortable and allow the placement of equipment on the torso. When Portland switched, I noticed few officers resting their hands on their sidearms and more switching to hooking their fingers on the arm slots on the vest.

  9. “I think there is a complete difference between an officer approaching an unknown situation with his (or her) hand on his (holstered) gun out of an abundance of caution and as a sort of security blanket or nervous tic and actually pulling that gun out, releasing the safety and shooting an innocent person.”

    The modern handguns that the police in MA (and other states) use do not have “safeties”.

    It was deemed too dangerous to have safeties on police handguns. It was regarded as too much extra complexity to worry about in a life or death situation, plus the lawsuits when the officer who only fires his gun once a year to pass the checkout shoots the innocent motorist (“I forgot to put the safety on”). The only “safety” is the laughably heavy 10lb+ trigger pull on the police pistols, which makes them lethally inaccurate (for bystanders). Google for “NYPD: 9 shooting bystander victims hit by police gunfire”

  10. @Henry, I was prepared to disagree with you about the trigger weight for police pistols – then i found that you are right. I didn’t realize that Police are actually increasing the trigger pull weight on their pistols (for liability purposes). But the actual liability is the severe impact that causes to their accuracy in a shooting situation.

    This article has a good, brief explanation.

Comments are closed.