Are Cops Wild In The Streets? New Study Says No Way!

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To hear some of the media and activist police critics tell it, American cops are “out of control,” running rampant in an “epidemic” of unjustified use of force.

But in an ongoing study that has been underway now for more than three years, Dr. Darrell Ross, an associate professor in the CJ department at East Carolina University, is nailing down facts that prove just the opposite is true.

In reality, Ross insists, officers’ use of force is miniscule in the totality of police-citizen contacts. Force incidents–both lethal and nonlethal–actually are down by significant percentages in recent years. And the oft-repeated accusation that police deliberately and discriminatorily target racial minorities in employing force is not substantiated when important contextual information is taken into account.

Why does the myth of extensive and excessive use of force persist? Partly, Ross suggests, because certain powerful political agendas and philosophical orientations depend on it. Partly because important, relevant social forces are not properly understood or reported. And partly because of the nature of modern media.

“People try to show a trend by taking one incident and magnifying it,” Ross told Force Science News, and the practice of tv shows infinitely replaying videotape “loops” of isolated police violence makes the atmosphere on the street “look worse than it is, like the police profession is in a conspiracy to beat people up.

“This is not to say we have never had officers who cross the line of brutality. We’ve had countless examples, just as other professions have their unethical members. But not at the level that the myth says. The truth is that police use of force, including deadly force, is less than it used to be by far.”

As a law enforcement trainer, CJ educator and expert witness with more than 20 years’ experience, Ross had grown wearily familiar with the accusatory broadsides leveled at American policing regarding use of force. At the latest ASLET training conference, he itemized a laundry list of these allegations, including claims that “police brutality is systematic,” that police “use more force than necessary,” that police “discriminately use excessive force against minority groups,” that police willfully and regularly “violate citizens’ 4th Amendment rights” and so on.

What finally motivated Ross to launch his study was the book “Police Brutality,” an anthology of essays edited by journalist Jill Nelson about the “crisis” of police “misconduct,” the “persecution” and “murder” of blacks by officers, and the disreputable behavior of “the fuzz” on the “battlefront” of the streets. The tenor of this material, coupled with “police brutality” reports by activist groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, seemed so vastly “ill-informed and ill-conceived” compared to Ross’ personal experiences that he determined to discover and document the truth.

To date, he has compiled and analyzed an extensive amount of pertinent data, including more than 220 lethal force and 60 less-than-lethal force studies, innumerable articles and reports, 35 years’ worth of government crime-trend statistics, 26 years of officer-felon shooting data and 3,500 civil liability cases (among them more than 300 that he has been involved in as an expert witness).

In an interview with Force Science News, he discussed some of his key conclusions:

  • First of all, it’s important to understand that between 1978 and 2003, the U.S. population age 13 and older grew by about 47,000,000 people. The police population in that period increased by about 235,000 officers. Yet despite a civilian population growth that is about 200 times that of law enforcement growth, police shootings have not increased. Indeed only a tiny percentage of police-citizen contacts–holding steady at about 1%–involve police using force of any kind. Even in arrests, use of force occurs only in about 3%.
  • From 1968 to 1975, an average of 483 persons per year were shot dead by police rounds. That average has dropped significantly since then. Overall, the annual average of lethal shootings is down 33% since 1968. Shootings by police that inflict injury but not death have decreased by 20-22%, Ross says. He credits a drop in violent crime, more restrictive court rulings (notably Tennessee v. Garner), better training and decision-making by officers and the availability of more less-lethal force options, including OC, Taser and beanbag ammunition.
  • Police shootings are related to UCR violent crime trends. Both tend to be highest in crime- and violence-ridden “hot spots” within a city. These areas are “catalysts” for officers being called and using force to deal with the situations they encounter there, Ross says. Like it or not, the areas with the highest concentration of violent crimes predominately are black. “Shootings are related to community safety and crime in the community,” Ross explains. In fairness, “you can’t ignore that and look at police shootings in a vacuum. If you don’t consider factors like this you aren’t looking at the true nature of the statistics.”
  • Given their representation in the general population (about 15%), blacks are disproportionately shot by police. But that figure is changing. In 1978, 49% of suspects shot by officers were black. By 2003 that had fallen to 34%. It’s relevant to note that there also is a racial disparity where the commission of violent crime is concerned. For example, “African-American males are eight times more likely to commit homicide than whites,” Ross points out. This involvement in violence and other behavioral choices make them more likely use-of-force targets. “The lifestyle of people who get shot is generally different from those who don’t. You can’t overlook that. Disparity in shootings does not equate with ‘discrimination’ in shootings.”
  • The race of the players in use-of-force scenarios is changing. The incidence of white officers killing black suspects has dropped since 1978, while the incidence of white officers killing white suspects is increasing. Most often black suspects are killed by black officers. All of this “dispels the myth of cops picking only on a certain race” when force is used, Ross says. “Research over the last 30 years repeatedly shows that lethal force used by police is NOT racially motivated.”
  • As to the charge that misguided police tactics provoke force encounters, Ross found no evidence of a pattern in which “the officer ‘created’ the danger and/or situation in which lethal force was required, nor did the officer take a ‘poor position’ that placed the officer in a situation necessitating the use of lethal force.”
  • Where both lethal force and nonlethal force are concerned, Ross’ research confirms that the measure of force officers decide to employ is “highly associated” with the degree of suspect resistance. In other words, force is not just arbitrarily and unjustly delivered. Indeed, he found that officers “routinely use lower forms of force than what could have been justified” (deploying OC, for example, when a baton or a neck restraint could have been employed). A significant indication of the move toward lower levels of force is a decline in the use of impact weapons and a corresponding rise in the use of pepper spray, Ross says.
  • As to the claim of widespread “brutality,” Ross cites the federal DOJ’s Use of Force Survey (1996 and 2000), the largest study of its kind ever made. Of all the hundreds of thousands of police-citizen contacts in which force of some kind was used, fewer than 1% of uses were considered excessive. In 68% of arrests, the subject did not sustain any injury, and in another 25% only a cut or bruise occurred. In fact, officers in force encounters are more likely than suspects to suffer an injury that requires hospital treatment!

Ross believes it is important for officers, trainers, administrators and friends of law enforcement to “do what we can to get the word out” about his findings and “set the record straight.” He also urges these additional recommendations:

  1. Government entities and their insurers need to continue to “fight to win” questionable lawsuits based on exaggerated abusive force allegations. Officers can help in this effort by writing “a lot better reports” of force incidents, he says.
  2. The trend toward greater sophistication in police training needs to be accelerated. He specifically advocates “dynamic, scenario-based” training through role-playing and use of simulators that helps officers “make better decisions” and drive inappropriate uses of force “down even further.”
  3. Departments should review and revise use-of-force policies that may create confusing, no-win situations for officers. For example, he says, some agencies still insist that officers use “only the minimum force necessary” to make an arrest or control a violent offender. This unnecessarily opens the door to “coulda/shoulda” criticism where officers’ actions are second-guessed, Ross says–because it is not the standard stated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case Graham v. Connor. The Court established a standard of “objective reasonableness,” which allows for broader flexibility in the realistic context of unpredictable, fast-evolving, complex dynamics that so often characterize force encounters.

“It’s vitally important that the public be informed about the issues Dr. Ross’ research addresses,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato. “If myths are not dispelled, they are believed, and that means people will believe cops are as violent as movies and other media often make them out to be. Once that belief prevails, then the risk is that even totally professional force encounters between officers and subjects will be interpreted as inappropriately violent.”

Some of Ross’ findings are reported in the journal Law Enforcement Executive Forum for Jan. ’05. The article is titled: “A Content Analysis of the Emerging Trends in the Use of Non-Lethal Force Research in Policing.”

Ross also teaches a 16-hour block on “The Myths and Realities of the Police Use of Force,” which can be adapted for shorter conference presentations, with training implications included. He can be reached at (252) 328-4203 or via email at rossd@mail.ecu.edu.

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