The rate of justifiable homicide by law enforcement is much higher in the United States than in other developed nations. The number of incidents has been increasing since 2000, even as the crime rate has dropped markedly. (See Justifiable Homicide by Law Enforcement by the Numbers) Why is this so?
The reason for the high rate of justifiable homicide relative to other nations seems straightforward to me. America is a violent society. Blame it on our frontier heritage, or whatever you will, the fact is that American homicide rates are much higher than in other developed nations. Firearms are abundant. Confrontations have a much greater chance of involving lethal force. Our relatively high rate strikes me as a statement about our society, not about the law enforcement community. The
The challenging question is why the rate of justifiable homicide by law enforcement should be increasing while crime rates have been falling. I am not certain. I am not a criminologist. The criminologist I read say solid data is lacking. Definitive answers are hard to come by. Here are my speculations.
Several years ago, I read book by a police officer named George Thompson called Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion. Thompson had been an English professor with a black-belt in karate before going into law enforcement. He tells about his first night on patrol. He pulled over a man for a traffic violation. When the man got mouthy, Thompson forcibly subdued and arrested him. Thompson was summoned to his superior at the end of the shift. He anticipated praise for his work. Instead, his captain explained that such a stop should not have ended in an arrest. Thompson would never make it as a police officer if he could not learn how to deal better with people.
During his apprenticeship as a police officer, Thompson came to see karate and judo as metaphors for a policing mindset. Karate is about meeting force with force while Judo is about using your opponent’s momentum to throw him the direction you want him to go. So how might this work with an irritable speeder?
Officer: “Sir, I need to your driver’s license and registration.” (The officer makes clear what compliance looks like.)
Speeder: “Seriously! What did I do? Fail to flip a freakin’ turn signal? Drug dealers on the street and terrorist blowing up buildings. Don’t you jackasses have something better to do? How many people’s houses are being robbed?”
Officer: (calmly) “I can appreciate that sir but I still need to see your driver’s license and registration.”
There might be two or three iterations of this interchange with the officer calmly making clear what is required each time. The officer is giving the offender an opportunity to vent while still making clear the need for compliance. If compliance is still not forthcoming, the officer might say something like:
Officer: (calmly) “Sir, if you do not comply, I will have to arrest you. You will spend the night in a cold uncomfortable cell instead of in your nice warm bed. I will have to spend an hour or more, sitting in my car, filling out paperwork. Neither of us wants that. Please hand me your driver’s license and registration.”
The officer is reiterating the need for compliance but he is now making clear the consequences of non-compliance. He appeals to the direction the offender wants to go (home to a warm bed) as an act of verbal judo.
If the offender still will not comply, then the officer will say something like:
Officer: (calmly) “Sir, are you sure there is nothing I can say to gain your compliance?”
At that point, the officer and his partner are positioning themselves to spring into action to apprehend the noncompliant offender.
This is verbal judo. It is applicable to almost any position of authority. The subject is not required to like the person in authority or to like the demand. He or she has the space to voice opposition. The goal is to gain compliance by helping the person clearly see the consequences of noncompliance and help him or her see that compliance is desirable. The aim is to defuse resistance, not escalate it. Most often, the person will comply before things escalate to using force.
My point is not the specifics of the technique. I am pointing to the mindset. “Verbal Judo” is a different mindset than rolling up on a scene, barking orders, and taking the least perceived slight as justification for escalating to tasers, take downs, and lethal force. I believe most officers have typically embraced a defusing model of policing. A base that on my limited interaction with the few law enforcement officers I have known and for whom I have great respect. They genuinely see their job as a calling to serve and protect.
Unfortunately, I worry this sense of calling is eroding. It concerns me that too many officers may now see Thompson’s aggressive escalating rookie behavior as the optimal model. I cannot empirically substantiate this except to so say that I see the rising rate of justifiable homicides as a likely proxy for violence by law enforcement in general. Furthermore, the Justice Department just completed a study of the Cleveland Police Department and found the following patterns:
- The unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force, including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons;
- the unnecessary, excessive or retaliatory use of less lethal force including Tasers, chemical spray and fists;
- Excessive force against persons who are mentally ill or in crisis, including in cases where the officers were called exclusively for a welfare check; and
- The employment of poor and dangerous tactics that place officers in situations where avoidable force becomes inevitable. (Source)
A former St. Louis police officer recently wrote:
… As a cop, it shouldn’t surprise you that people will curse at you, or be disappointed by your arrival. That’s part of the job. But too many times, officers saw young black and brown men as targets. They would respond with force to even minor offenses. And because cops are rarely held accountable for their actions, they didn’t think too hard about the consequences. …
… I, too, have faced mortal danger. I’ve been shot at and attacked. But I know it’s almost always possible to defuse a situation.
Once, a sergeant and I got a call about someone wielding a weapon in an apartment. When we showed up, we found someone sitting on the bed with a very large butcher knife. Rather than storming him and screaming “put the knife down” like my colleagues would have done, we kept our distance. We talked to him, tried to calm him down.
It became clear to us that he was dealing with mental illness. So eventually, we convinced him to come to the hospital with us.
I’m certain many other officers in the department would have escalated the situation fast. They would have screamed at him, gotten close to him, threatened him. And then, any movement from him, even an effort to drop the knife, would have been treated as an excuse to shoot until their clips were empty. … (Source)
I have listened to other ex-officers from other cities give similar testimony. Despite what I perceive to be majority of officers entering their work as noble calling, the evidence seems to point to systemic problems that goes beyond isolated individuals going rogue. I nominate two factors for consideration.
First, broken windows policing. As I understand it, this model suggests that disorder in a community makes residents withdraw and isolate themselves. This creates opportunities for more serious criminal activity to move in. A downward cycle ensues. Broken windows policing focuses on addressing even minor problems as means of restoring a sense of order, catalyzing an upward positive cycle.
The broken windows policy came into vogue with the crack-cocaine epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The crime rate did plummet after 1994, and this policy may have played a key role. But is there a point at which neighborhoods reach a semblance of health and it is counterproductive to continue this policy? Does continuation begin to feel like harassment? Add to this that has typically been implemented in minority neighborhoods. Continued enforcement means minority residents being charged with violations that are routinely ignored in white communities. It is not hard to see how a cycle of escalating resentment between law enforcement and citizens could emerge.
Second, 9/11. It is curious that 2001 is the year where we see the divergence between a dropping crime rate and rising justifiable homicide rate. Law enforcement must take extraordinary measures in crises. We give law enforcement officers considerably more latitude. Many perceive our society to have been in a perpetual state of crisis ever since the attack on the World Trade Center. Militarization is on the rise, both in mindset and in the equipment law enforcement agencies are acquiring. Fear of terrorism has become wedded to a perception that crime and chaos is spinning wildly out of control. (As noted in the previous post, crime rates have plummeted to their lowest rates in fifty years, but the widespread perception is much different.) (Related: Police Violence Is The Exception.)
In this environment, defusing difficult encounters becomes a luxury. I routinely hear conservative commentators characterizing those who the police shoot as “resisting arrest” when they do not instantly follow an officer’s direction. They justify law enforcement in aggressive confrontation. This could certainly be true in a crisis situation, but for jaywalking? For selling “loosies?” I absolutely agree that citizens should show respect for police officers but I flatly reject that failure to show such respect necessitates escalation by an officer. Officers who do not know how to defuse situations, or are unwilling to try, are not qualified to be in law enforcement. George Thompson’s captain was right.
I’m not suggesting that these are the only two variables. For instance, a National Sheriff’s Association report points to an increase in encounters between police and people suffering from mental illness. (Source) Still, I think broken windows and 9/11 are key contributors that set the stage for much else.
Now I have purposely been sidestepping the issue of race because I wanted to lay the above foundation before incorporating race. More in the next post.
What do you think?