The Ultimate Tragedy: What’s The Truth About Police-On-Police Shootings? (Part 1)

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Part 1 of a 2-part series

The first comprehensive nationwide survey of mistaken-identity, “friendly fire” fatalities in law enforcement has been completed by a governor’s task force in New York, unearthing a wealth of informative and useful data but raising a controversial specter that “unconscious racial biases” against minority officers may influence some of these tragedies.

The group, empanelled by Gov. David Paterson after 2 high-profile cop-on-cop shootings in New York State, documented 26 cases across the last 3 decades in which out-of-uniform officers in the U.S. have been mistaken for criminals and shot dead by fellow officers. Ten of the 14 killed in the last 15 years in these mistaken-identity events have been “people of color,” according to the task force’s final report.

Overall, where victim officers were shot on-duty while working undercover or in plainclothes, there is no “obvious racial or ethnic pattern,” says the report’s executive summary. “[B]ut the reality is strikingly different for off-duty officers.

“As far as we can determine,” the report continues, “1982 was the last year in which an off-duty, white police officer was killed in a mistaken-identity, police-on-police shooting anywhere in the United States. Since then, nine off-duty officers of color have been killed in such shootings.”

While acknowledging that the behavior of victim officers is often critical in these “fast-moving, dangerous” encounters, the report cites, among other academic findings, computer-based shoot/don’t-shoot simulations in which “both police officers and members of the general public” displayed “unconscious biases” that led them to be “quicker to ‘shoot’ images of armed black people than of armed white people.”

The implication is strong that this finding is be relevant to the “friendly fire” shootings of LEOs, and the report recommends that police departments “deal with the unconscious biases that influence all people, including police officers.”

While the report states that “there are many issues besides race present in these shootings and the role that race plays is not simple or straightforward,” the task force affirms its ultimate “belief that race can, and often does, play a significant role in these confrontations—at least in the escalation…into fatal tragedies.”

The group’s 147-page report, however, does not offer specific evidence that racial stereotyping or bias was a factor in any of the mistaken-identity fatalities it reviewed, including the 2 that launched its investigation.

During the task force’s 6 months of gathering information, Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, was asked to submit his opinion on the scientific dynamics of police-on-police encounters. His paper is quoted from in the group’s report and is attached to it in full as an appendix.

Lewinski told Force Science News recently that he admires the task force’s pioneering work in compiling little-known facts about mistaken-identity shootings and appreciates its interest in the Force Science perspective.

But when it comes to causal factors, in his view, the effect of life-threatening stress on human performance is likely to be more important than race in shaping these officer-involved shootings. Indeed, he told the task force, the challenging officers who shoot in these confrontations may not even be aware of the victim officers’ race or gender in the pressure-cooker context in which they are acting.

In Part 1 of this series, we examine highlights of the task force report, including its observations on racial bias and its recommendations for lessening the risk of officers mistakenly shooting colleagues. In Part 2, we’ll take a comprehensive look at what Force Science has to say about these grievous encounters.

Rare deaths, common confrontations. If there is any good news about cop-on-cop fatalities, it’s that they’re “extremely rare” by any measure, the task force reports. Some years pass “without a single instance,” with “never more than 3 in 1 year” since the mid-1980s. The average has been fewer than 1 a year “at a slow but steady pace…across decades.” In contrast, police kill approximately 365 persons in custody or during the arrest process each year, the report says.

With agencies “of all sizes” being hit, the South (with 13) has been struck hardest, with Texas experiencing more cop-on-cop fatalities than any other state—4 between 1981 and 2009. The Midwest has lost only 1 officer in such a shooting, in Michigan. Thirty-six states have escaped entirely.

The deaths, however, “are merely the tip of an iceberg,” the task force reports. Confrontations in which officers do not recognize others as police “occur every day, and while most are defused without injury, each contains the seed of a tragedy.”

The task force estimates that “thousands” of nonfatal encounters occur each year. The exact number can’t be known because they’re rarely reported even within a department and agencies as a whole don’t compile such statistics. The task force collected and analyzed over 300 stories of such face-offs from current and retired LEOs.

Race and Circumstance

In the first half of the period the task force studied, 10 of the 12 victim officers were white, and only 2 were black. But in the more recent half of the period, “10 of the 14 victims were officers of color (8 black and 2 Hispanic) and only 4 victim officers were white,” the group’s report says.

Moreover, “almost all of the officers of color killed were taking police action while off-duty at the time…whereas almost none of the white officers were off-duty” when shot. “For white officers, the dangers—such as they are—virtually all lie in undercover and plainclothes assignments. For officers of color, the dangers are greatest when they draw their weapons while off-duty.

“These stark racial differences…are important…. The gradual increase in the diversity of many U.S. law enforcement agencies cannot alone explain a swing of this magnitude” toward greater victimization of black and Hispanic officers.

Racial Anxiety

“All of the off-duty officers in the fatal…shootings were displaying a gun when they were killed,” having intervened in a crime-in-progress, been a victim of a crime themselves, or been coming to the aid of another officer or civilian, the task force reports.

Given the disproportionate toll of black and Hispanic victims, minority officers who testified at field hearings and responded to online surveys conducted by the task force often expressed deep reservations about being on the street armed when they were not in uniform, whether on-duty or off, “because they feared being mistaken for criminals by fellow officers.” Some are hesitant to take undercover assignments, even though such work is widely considered a path toward career advancement.

“There is no question that many officers of color feel that they are at heightened risk of being mistaken for criminals when they are out of uniform and taking police action,” the report states. The national chairman of the National Assn. of Black Law Enforcement Officers told the task force: “The overall mindset that a black man out of uniform can only be a suspected criminal has become embedded in the culture of law enforcement.”

Academic Input

Despite an extensive search, the task force could find no academic studies precisely focused on police-on-police shootings. However, its report states: “There is growing evidence that police officers—like members of the general public—carry what psychologists call ‘implicit racial bias,’ which reveals itself in some shoot/don’t-shoot decisions.”

The task force cites 3 studies to support this conclusion. One found that “merely thinking about Blacks can lead people to evaluate ambiguous behavior as aggressive, to miscategorize harmless objects as weapons, or to shoot quickly, and at times, inappropriately.”

Another concluded that “when civilians and police officers are forced to make decisions under time pressure, they show a range of ‘weapons biases’ against blacks, making them more likely to falsely perceive a gun after being primed with a photograph of a black than a white man.”

Finally, the work of a University of Chicago psychologist and consultant to the NYPD, Dr. Joshua Correll, is described. In a video game simulation test he conducted, “research subjects were shown a variety of images of black and white individuals: some holding a gun of some kind, others holding innocuous objects such as a cell phone, wallet, or a soda can.

“Asked to make a decision whether to ‘shoot’ or ‘not shoot,’ both police officers and civilians…took longer to act on the images of black people with innocuous objects and of white people with guns, and they were faster to respond to black people with guns and to white people holding innocuous objects.

“In other words, they ‘shot’ an armed target more quickly if he was African-American than if he was white; and they declined to shoot an unarmed target more quickly if he was white than if he was African-American.”

Actually, the report says, officers did better than the civilians in these tests, more accurately distinguishing lethal from innocent objects and not shooting unarmed black suspects more often than unarmed white suspects. Still, the “bias in reaction times,” in the context of the task force report, seems to have strongly influenced the group’s conclusion that race is a telling factor in cop-on-cop, mistaken-identity shootings.

Tactical Considerations

Based on input from “police executives, trainers, and tactical experts,” the task force offers certain “excellent basic rules” to help prevent an officer-on-officer confrontation from escalating to deadly force.

If you are an officer who’s challenged while out of uniform, the report advises:

  1. “When you hear the command, ‘Police! Don’t move!’ assume the command is addressed to YOU, not just the suspect you are pursuing. Lock yourself in position. Don’t move.
  2. “Resist ‘reflexive spin,’ the natural tendency to turn towards the voice that is confronting you, as even the turn of your head may begin to bring your weapon around causing the confronting officer to feel threatened.
  3. “Use your voice to identify yourself loudly and clearly as a police officer.
  4. “Obey the commands of the challenging officer, including a command to drop your weapon, and do not make any movement without the permission of the challenging officer; regardless of your rank or position, the uniformed officer is in command.”

As a challenging officer, the report says you should:

  1. “Recognize that a person who appears to you to ‘look like’ a criminal suspect may well be a police officer….
  2. “Take cover [so] you can take a little time to establish who the person is you’re confronting.
  3. “Shout, ‘Police! Don’t move!’
  4. “Broaden your focus from the gun. Focusing only on the gun is a natural first response but [you need] to listen, look, and analyze a wide array of clues to understand the situation quickly.”

About 40% of officers who responded to a task force questionnaire said they received “some type of training” on police-on-police confrontations. But trained procedures are often flouted in the field “in the heat of the moment.”

The report says: “Nearly all victim officers [had] firearms displayed at the time they were shot… [M]any…reportedly failed to comply with the commands of challenging officers who ordered them to freeze or to drop their weapons.” Instead, they rapidly turned “to determine the source of a verbal command” or approached the challenging officer with gun in hand, “perhaps oblivious to the danger they faced.”

The deaths of 2 black officers that launched the task force amid “widespread speculation” about racism typify such tactical failures. One victim, a probationary officer who intervened off-duty to break up a street brawl in a community near New York City, did not comply with orders from responding uniforms to “drop the gun” and “get down” and, according to most witnesses did not identify himself as a cop. He was shot once in the head and 5 times in the torso.

The other, off-duty and gun out with less than 2 years’ experience on NYPD, was chasing a suspect who had broken into his car when confronted by plainclothes officers in an unmarked vehicle. When one of them yelled, “Police! Stop! Drop the gun!” the challenged officer turned toward him with his gun and was shot 3 times.

Even when training is followed, there can be tactical confusion. The task force points out that in New York State alone, there are 571 individual police departments, collectively employing over 69,000 sworn personnel, plus a myriad of federal and specialized agencies—with little or no assured uniformity of procedures, if, indeed, they have addressed the issue at all.


Currently, most departments are ill-prepared to deal with the catastrophic impact of a police-on-police shooting, the task force warns. Yet without skillful leadership, these incidents “can easily traumatize and sometimes polarize” entire agencies, as well as shatter public credibility.

The task force’s report includes 14 pages that list and elaborate on recommendations that “if promptly adopted and faithfully implemented…can save lives.”

These include:

  • establishing “common protocols” nationwide regarding “when and how to take police action while off-duty or out of uniform, and how challenging and confronted officers should conduct themselves.”
  • requiring “interactive, scenario-based training” on these protocols for recruits and veteran officers and developing training for “police leaders in how to respond effectively to police-on-police shootings.”
  • accelerating the development by federal and state governments of “testing and training to measurably reduce unconscious racial bias in shoot/don’t shoot decisions” and expanding race-and-diversity training in PDs.
  • launching a federal program in cooperation with local law enforcement agencies of “dialogue and research on the experiences of officers of color, especially when off duty.”
  • establishing a mandatory reporting system for all firearms discharges “to improve understanding as to how police-on-police confrontations occur, and how they can be resolved without injury.”
  • improving the “transparency and understanding of prosecutorial decisions” in these shootings through the public disclosure of “as many details as possible as early as possible.”
  • making training by community organizations available to “civilians of all races and ethnicities” on how to “handle themselves during encounters with police.”

In the stated opinion of the task force, these recommendations not only are “high-impact” but also are “cost-effective.”

“The dangers that give rise to these deaths are inherent in policing,” the task force report says, “but those dangers can be reduced and more deaths prevented.

“Yet if recent patterns hold, it is likely that another police department somewhere in the United States will find itself facing just such a tragedy this year, another one in 2011, and so on into the future.”

The task force’s full report, Reducing Inherent Danger, can be downloaded free of charge by clicking here.

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