Two New Books On Cops And Guns.

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I have reviewed Chris Hayes’ new book, A Colony In A Nation, here and there, and I think it’s a good read.  It also takes a look at ghetto policing that is seriously incomplete.  And what makes it incomplete is the final chapter where Hayes promotes an idea for more effective (and less brutal) ghetto policing based on his experiences as a Brown University student in interactions with the campus police.  This approach is a rather silly way to discuss a very difficult problem and I suspect that the chapter was tacked onto the book because the editor said, ‘Chris, you gotta’ say something about what needs to be done,’ but it would have better be left unsaid.

hayes             If you want to read  a serious discussion about how to fix  ghetto policing, I suggest you read Franklin Zimring’s new book, When Police Kill, which I also previously reviewed, But I focused that review on the first half of Zimring’s book, which explores the data on cop killings, as well as the data on how many cops get killed.  And one of the important issues discussed by Zimring is the degree to which cops get shot while on the job.  If you think the differential between civilian gun homicides in the U.S. versus other advanced countries is very wide (on the order of 6 to 200 percent) you ought to look at the difference between the number of cops shot in assaults in the U.S. as compared to everywhere else. Countries like Great Britain and Germany will go multiple years without a single cop being killed at all, whereas nearly 300 on-duty police are killed in the U.S. each year and 90% of these assaults involve the use of guns.

Hayes is aware of this problem, and he notes that “the threat of the sudden bullet extends to every single aspect of policing.” [p. 103.] But police who patrol the Brown University campus really don’t have to worry about whether the students they confront will be armed, whereas in the inner-city, the reality is that guns abound.  And while this doesn’t mean that every cop riding through Harlem, Watts or Roxbury should believe that he’s in the middle of the OK Corral, the element of uncertainty and fear on the part of police because there are so many guns needs to be factored into any discussion about policing and race.

And that is exactly what the second half of Franklin Zimring’s book is about, namely, a serious and fact-filled discussion about preventing and controlling police killings, which seem to have lately spiraled out of control.  The first issue is a question of data – you can’t fix what you don’t know. And Zimring gives us chapter and verse on how poor, inconsistent and often contradictory the data happens to be.  Along with the lack of good data, the response of cops to being attacked is frequently far beyond the use of force necessary to repel that specific attack.  Take a look at the data covering 2015 (pp. 61-62) and note that in nearly half of the fatal shootings committed by cops, the victim didn’t have a gun at all. Finally, it turns out that there is no solid reporting of police shootings where the victim didn’t die.  So how can we understand the scope of police violence and the reaction of the community to that violence if we don’t even know how often or where it occurs?

Zimring concludes the second half of the book by discussing what he calls “precision in reporting and measurement, and the willingness to invest resources in evaluating new strategies of disarming the dangerous,” and he presents concrete steps for doing both. He believes, and backs up his beliefs with hard data, that such strategies could reduce cop killings  by roughly 90% within a decade’s time.

We now have two books out there that look at the issue of police violence from different points of view.  My recommendation is that you read both.

A Must-Read Book On Cop Killings.


Now that we finally have a President who supports the police and promises to end the ‘dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America,’ we can begin to gauge how and why this so-called anti-police atmosphere has arisen from a remarkable piece of research, When Police Kill, written by Frank Zimring and published by Harvard University Press.  Zimring is no stranger to the field of gun violence research, having produced formative efforts in this field for more than forty years. And if you think for one second that the issue of cop killings doesn’t go to the heart of the debate about gun violence, think again. Because what Zimring shows is that not only are most fatalities which occur at the hands of police the result of cops using guns, but the number of such deaths each year is undercounted by more than half!

cops             Zimring bases his estimate of 1,000+ fatal cop shootings each year on the data collected by The Guardian, whose website contains incident-by-incident counts of cop shootings drawn from a constant scanning of web reports, tips from viewers, social media, what is referred to as ‘crowdsourced’ information which Guardian staff carefully examine and attempt to validate before posting the results online. The first half of When Cops Kill is based on the Guardian data covering January 1 through June 30, 2015. I looked at the remainder of 2015 and the year’s entire total was 1,146, more than twice the number estimated by the three government agencies – FBI, DOJ and CDC – which are supposed to provide solid information on which discussions about public policy usually depend.

Zimring’s explanation for this whopping discrepancy in the numbers covering cop killings basically falls back on some well-worn idea about the limitations of coroner reports, the lack of money for more intensive research and the fact that not one single police agency whose jurisdiction might encompass a police shooting (or any kind of shooting, for that matter) is required to report this information to the FBI.  But what’s really behind this lack of specificity about cop shootings is something more generic to the problem itself, namely, that better data would require that the cops do a more thorough job of investigating and reporting shootings by their own, and this just simply doesn’t take place.

One might be tempted to assume that the underreporting is also a function of the extent to which police gun violence, like all gun violence, primarily involves minorities, but this is not the case.  In fact, in 2015, whites were 50% of all victims shot by cops, blacks were 27% and Hispanics comprised 17%.  But of the 12,979 deaths attributed by the CDC to non-cop gun violence, the ratios were reversed, with whites comprising 24% of the total, blacks comprising 58% and Hispanics at 16%. The bottom line is that police gun violence is ignored because it’s ignored, period.

Reported or not, the real question is why are there so many fatal cop shootings each year – the numbers dwarf differences between our overall gun violence and what is experienced in other Western countries. Zimring’s answer is what you might expect, namely, “the proliferation of concealable firearms in the civilian population.”  For the first half of 2015, guns were recovered from 56% of the victims of fatal police shootings, a number which dropped to slightly below 50% for the year as a whole.

Notwithstanding the lack of training, the lack of thorough reporting and the lack of operational concern, the fact is that a police officer in the United States who finds himself in a confrontational situation believes that there is a one out of two chance that his adversary is carrying a gun.  And as we say, you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.

I will publish a separate column on Zimring’s recommendations for what he refers to as ‘the mess’ of police gun violence. But don’t wait for my additional thoughts on this valuable and important book before reading it yourself. It needs to be read.

How Many People Get Shot By Cops? A Lot More Than You Think.

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If you want to get a handle on the numbers involved in gun violence, you can go to two sources: the CDC or the FBI.  The numbers aggregated by the CDC come from coroner’s reports received by state health departments and then forwarded, analyzed and presented on the CDC website WISQARS, which tracks fatal and non-fatal injuries since 1999 and 2001, respectively. The other method is to use the crime data from the FBI, whose numbers begin in 1960 but become state-based beginning in 1985.

The data in these two reports is, to put it politely, somewhat diffuse.  Take one year for example, in this case 2005.  According to the FBI, 16,740 people were victims of murder or manslaughter, the CDC listed the total number of homicides as 18,124.  This 10% difference between the two numbers is more or less the same for every year in which both agencies report their numbers, and it reflects both different definitions (one is reporting medical events, the other reporting crimes) and both numbers are estimates reflecting the fact that state and local agencies which report the raw totals are not necessarily required to report anything at all.

Where things really get crazy is when we look at CDC and FBI numbers for what is referred to as homicide by ‘legal intervention,’ which is a polite way of saying that someone got shot by a cop.  In 2010, to choose a different year for comparison, the FBI put this number at 397; for the CDC it was 412.  For the years 2010 – 2014, the FBI says that 2,142 people were killed by law enforcement, the CDC number is 2,485.  So now we have a gap between the two estimates of nearly 15%, but that’s not even scratching the veritable surface when it comes to figuring out what’s what.

I was tipped off to this problem by a story in MedScape that focused on the research of a group at the Harvard School of Public Health who have been looking at the data on cop killings since 1960. They recently published an op-ed on this problem citing an enormous discrepancy between the ‘official’ numbers on legal intervention deaths and what is now being reported by, of all media outlets, The Guardian, which happens to be a newspaper published in the U.K. The reason I find this interesting is because cop killings in England are so rare that in 2013, police in the U.K. only shot off their duty weapons three times and, by the way, didn’t kill anyone at all.

The Guardian has created a website, The Counted, which has been collecting and publishing stories about legal interventions since 2015, and I have to tell you that the numbers are frighteningly higher than anything posted by the CDC or the FBI. In 2015 the site lists 1,140 persons killed by the police, so far in 2016 the number has reached 136.  At this rate the total for 2016 will only be 1,013, a 10% decrease from last year, but still more than twice as high as what we get from our usual sources at the FBI or the CDC. Actually, my friends at the Gun Violence Archive also post a daily count on what they call “officer involved shootings,’ and so far this year their death toll stands at 145.

I’ll leave the two aggregators to figure out whose number is more exact, but the bottom line is that cop killings are much higher than what is usually assumed to be the case, and they occur most frequently in African-American ghetto neighborhoods – gee, what a surprise! The problem with the data found in the Guardian’s website, however, is that it is very incomplete. Try filtering for any attribute – race, age, gender, weapon – the numbers fall way short. Deriving stories from media notices is one thing, aggregating objective data is something else. If public health researchers want to get their hands on real data they better be prepared to wait, and wait, and wait.


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