Wits and weapons: some facts on police use of deadly force

For police, a major aspect of training in proper use of firearms is when NOT to use them. The written procedures in good police departments require officers to have a sound and articulable rationale for firing their weapons.

Good cops develop an ethical, personal philosophy and strategy in reference to the circumstances in which they will shoot and not shoot. If you listen to veteran police on the East Coast, especially, they have cherished stories about the time they chose not to fire, when they had facts and evidence, such as a child pointing a firearm at them, displayed in front of them. In Bill Bratton’s Turnaround his fave is the time in South Boston he was unarmed and talked an armed subject into releasing a hostage.  I believe that good cops use their wits commonly and their weapons rarely.  No statistical bureau counts or analyzes such discretionary judgments.  A lot of learning is thusly lost.

That’s not to gainsay elaborate analysis of incidents in which the trigger is pulled.  We must scrutinize any lethal act committed under the color of the badge. We must hold the guardians of justice and safety to a very high standard when it comes to use of deadly force. At the same time, the standard cannot include asking police to die first as the only vindication of their use of lethal force. Officer safety is paramount.

Deaths resulting from police use of deadly force in the US are rare, as compared with other causes of violent deaths in the US. When you examine the statistics to compare the number of encounters between police and citizens and the number of fatal shootings, it would appear that the normal response in all kinds of encounters is for cops to keep the sidearm in the holster and, if removed, to take cover and try to avoid squeezing the trigger.

The trend in departments such as Boston and New York is a decline in officer-involved fatal shootings. National statistics are not available, e.g. the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) does not collect such figures. One recent estimate by ABC News suggests that the average number of officer-involved fatal shootings in the US is about 360 persons per year. Anecdotally, we may have some increase in more rural jurisdictions. Lots of factors would need to be examined there, including how far an officer is from the nearest back-up at the time of an encounter.

An estimated 40 million U.S. residents age 16 or older, or about 17% of the population, had a face-to-face contact with a police officer in 2008. This is a continuing decrease in contact between police and the public, down from 19% of residents who had contact with the police in 2005 and 21% who had contact in 2002.

Among persons who had face-to-face contact with police during 2008, about 1 out of 4 experienced contact more than once during the year.

In 2008, nearly 67 million encounters occurred between the police and the 40 million persons who had contact during that year, with an average of 1.7 face-to-face contacts per resident.

Of persons who had contact with the police in 2008, about 9 out of 10 felt the officer or officers behaved properly.

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About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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