Police use of force isn’t necessarily bad – we give law enforcement tools, training, and mandates to use force on behalf of polite society for a reason. It also isn’t common, with less than 1% of all calls for service resulting in use of force. It is, however, always alarming, at best a sign that officers encountered an extremely dangerous situation and at worst, in the case of deadly force, short-circuiting the justice system. So when police use of force spikes, as it did last year in the DC area, my own backyard, we must take notice.
Prince George’s County reported 8 fatal police-involved shootings in 2011, up from only one in 2010, and the Metropolitan Police Department of DC saw 5 people killed in police-involved shootings with none in the previous year. Officials say that this is due to officers getting attacked more often, but statistics on violence are mixed. In both DC and PG County, homicides decreased last year. While assaults on police officers in PG County stayed roughly constant, there was some increase in assaults against officers with guns and three officers were shot and wounded, which a spokesperson called “unprecedented.” In DC, while statistics for 2011 were not available, the FBI recorded assaults against police increasing slightly from 969 in 2009 to 998 in 2010. If this trend continued into 2011, the increase in assaults would be much smaller as a proportion than the increase in lethal force employed by police, so what might be driving these numbers, and how can we reduce them?
In any discussion on police use of force, it’s important to explain what ISN’T a factor in officer-involved shootings. There are many myths surrounding use of force, which this highly recommended video debunks. For example, in discussing deadly force, somebody always asks why an officer can’t just shoot the suspect in the leg or arm, or, worse yet, shoot the weapon out of his hand. Police officers shoot for the center of mass, they shoot to kill, and it’s safer that way. Often, when they shoot they don’t hit anything at all, not because they have lousy aim, but because hitting a moving target in a split second during a high-stress encounter, possibly while moving yourself, is much harder than hitting a target at the range. Shooting for a limb, which is smaller and even more mobile, isn’t just impractical, it’s also dangerous, as it increases the chance of hitting a bystander, the bullet ricocheting off the ground or a building, or the officer missing or otherwise failing to stop an assailant, who then hurts or kills somebody. And being shot in the arm or leg can easily prove just as fatal if a major artery is hit. Counter-intuitively, shooting to kill is meant to save lives. It means that a weapon should only be fired if absolutely necessary and the officer or a victim is in serious danger. Under those circumstances a wounded suspect can still be a threat. If officers shot to wound, they would also be firing their weapons much more often, an inherently dangerous activity as it risks harming bystanders and officers while still potentially killing the suspect. With a shoot-to-kill policy, gun use should be limited to absolute necessities.
What then has led to the increased use of force? It’s possible that, as officials have stated, police really are coming under attack more often. As this isn’t the result of more violent crime, it may be caused by a change in methods of policing. PG County, for example, has gotten more aggressive and proactive in going after dangerous offenders. This may also contribute to the simultaneous drop in violent crime. But in some ways, coming at dangerous suspects is asking for trouble. While calling in an assault team and going after a suspect where he lives is a traditional approach, it often makes much more sense to catch him on a commute where he is less likely to be prepared, armed, and aggressive.
In contrast to a confrontational and reactive manner of policing where officers are called in during or after the crime, preventative policing may be another way to reduce officer use of force and the dangerous situations that lead up to it. One often touted alternative to responding to 911 calls from a cruiser is the foot patrol, where officers interact with communities more freely, making their presence felt and breaking up trouble before it escalates. Foot patrol has had somewhat mixed results in crime prevention. Two major studies, one in Kansas City and the other in Flint, disagreed over whether foot patrols actually lowered the crime rate, though both communities stated they felt safer. Part of the success of the NYPD’s Impact Zones, which lowered crime in some of New York’s most afflicted areas by 33%, can be attributed to this approach. In Operation Impact, over 1,000 police officers were assigned to patrol New York’s highest crime areas on foot, where they not only practiced preventative policing but also apprehended individuals with outstanding warrants, presumably when they met on the streets rather than by storming their homes and hideouts.
Nationwide and noted in reports on police use of force in the DC area, responding to a call regarding a mentally disturbed person often ends in violence. This includes those under the influence, those with mental illness or mental disability, and those extremely distressed or suicidal. Some departments, such as the Albuquerque Police Department, have responded to a high rate of force by creating crisis teams to deal with such instances where suspects cannot don’t respond to reasoning. They are trained in negotiation and mental health and have seen success in averting violence. From their websites and lists of specialized units, it does not appear that either MPD or PG County have crisis teams of this sort.
Another way to potentially lower the use of force is through training. The data linking police training and reduction of unnecessary or avoidable force is limited and largely inconclusive, though an albeit dated study showed that scenario based training had good results. Part of the problem, officers have noted, is a perceived and often real dichotomy between training and “the streets.” Red teaming helps bridge the gaps but as Fred Lelandof Law Enforcement and Security Consulting often notes, to really drive lessons home and make them practical, supervisors and veterans must be constantly turning real life experience into teaching moments by advising, instructing, and performing after-action reviews.
The true cause for the recent spike in DC area police use of force is likely complex and a combination of multiple factors. It could be, for example, that, in a successful effort to bring down crime, police have become more aggressive at targeting violent offenders, and as a result see more dangerous assaults on officers. The remedy, to the extent that there is one or that one is necessary, is also likely to be complex. The first step is recognizing this alarming trend, then responding through training and strategies to both ensure that more force than necessary isn’t used and that police don’t find themselves in situations that require it unduly.