A new study of unarmed individuals who have died this year in confrontations with police reveals illuminating details typically surrounding these events and tends to refute the activist narrative that trigger-happy officers with deadly intent are rampantly targeting black males.
After analyzing 125 cases that could be found in which unarmed civilians in the US emerged from law enforcement encounters dead in the first eight months of 2015, the research team states emphatically that the data “support no conclusion of systemic targeting by police of any [ethnic or racial] group.”
Indeed, contrary to impressions created in much public discourse, the study says the facts are that:
- A sizeable portion of unarmed subjects who died in police interactions were white, in confrontations with white officers;
- In nearly a third of the cases in which police fatally shot unarmed individuals, the officers unsuccessfully tried non-deadly control methods before escalating to firearms;
- Only four officers in the 125 incidents had prior histories of excessive force accusations, while past records of violent crimes were common with those killed and some violent act is what brought most of them to their final police contact;
- Where civilian witnesses were present during the encounters, “they generally sided with the police’s account of events”;
- The death of unarmed subjects at the hands of law enforcement is by no means a nationwide epidemic; nearly 60% of all such incidents have occurred so far this year in just eight states, nearly 20% in one state alone.
There is a “difference between the way the media have been portraying killings by law enforcement and the way things actually are,” says Nick Selby, lead author of the study. “From the media, you get the image of aviator sunglasses-wearing cops roaming the country shooting people, and that is certainly not the case.”
The study was conducted under the auspices of the Texas-based analytics technology firm StreetCred Software, Inc., which applies unique, specialized technologies to help police agencies, courts, and cities gather, understand, and use data from a wide variety of public and private sources relevant to gang activities, fugitives, intelligence operations, and other law enforcement concerns.
Selby, its CEO and co-founder, is an internationally recognized expert on computerized intelligence-gathering and a paid part-time investigator with a municipal police department in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.
As someone who has built a career on processing hard data, Selby told Force Science News that he has felt “incredibly frustrated” that the ongoing controversy over unarmed people dying at the hands of officers has been more driven by fever-pitch emotion and skewed media coverage than by objectivity.
Earlier this year, he assembled a team of 15 researchers–a mixture primarily of statisticians and “data-mining people,” intelligence analysts, and use-of-force experts, with varied political leanings–to try to frame these events in a fuller, “nonpartisan” context.
They limited their focus to deaths of the unarmed, Selby explains, because it is with this subset that the activist/media “narrative is so clearly against the police,” with virtually automatic accusations of abuse of power anytime a death occurs because the unarmed are presumed not to be dangerous.
Through intensive internet searches of a wide variety of data bases and media reports, the team compiled and reviewed all reported instances in the US of unarmed people dying between Jan. 1 and Sept. 9 in official contacts with LEOS on- or off-duty, excepting jail and prison episodes, car wrecks, and private, non-duty altercations. Where possible, the researchers also gleaned information from autopsy reports, grand jury hearings, dispatcher transcripts, and other official sources.
“I’m confident we found all the deaths that met our criteria in that time frame,” Selby says, “although not all the details of all the deaths are currently available. Our goal was not to judge whether these deaths were justified or not justified, but to expand the knowledge of prevailing circumstances and to see if, in fact, officers were unfairly targeting blacks.”
What they discovered was the subject of an hour-long webinar hosted recently by Calibre Press, Inc. That program, featuring Selby as the key presenter, can be accessed free of charge by CLICKING HERE.
The full study itself, titled “Unarmed Civilians & the Police: Analysis of the StreetCred(R) Police Killings in Context Data,” is also available without charge by CLICKING HERE.
Here are the highlights:
Of the 125 documented fatalities, 53 (42%) were black, 45 (36%) were white, and 20 (17%) were Hispanic, with ages averaging from the high 20s to mid-30s.
“Despite a clear media narrative to the contrary,” Selby writes, “nearly half of the 125 cases did not involve a shooting and the decedent died by other cause–most often after officers deployed tools or techniques…with the intent of gaining compliance through the use of non-deadly force.”
Almost all these cases, he told FSN, involved unarmed subjects with “existing health problems or acute intoxication from drugs or alcohol fighting the police to death.” Four per cent weighed over 250 pounds, some more than 300.
In 69 cases (55%), unarmed civilians were shot to death. Of these subjects, 43% were black, 36% white, and 20% Hispanic.
In the vast majority of cases, the race of involved officers could not be determined from the accessible data. But in shooting cases where officer race was known, all unarmed white subjects were shot by white officers. About 23% involved black officers shooting black subjects.
Tellingly, the study team found from analyzing more than 400 media reports, news sources were nearly four times more likely to mention the race of the involved officer when the unarmed decedent was black, compared to when the subject was white or Hispanic.
Only four officers (3%) in the incidents, the researchers found, had prior accusations of excessive force or a confirmed history of violent behavior.
Deaths in the study were not evenly distributed geographically. Out of more than 14,000 law enforcement agencies in the US, 115 experienced unarmed deaths during the study period.
Just four states–California, Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma–accounted for over 40% of all cases. Add four more–Maryland, New York, Ohio, and Georgia–and you tally nearly 60% of all unarmed decedents. California alone accounts for nearly 20% of all cases, with 7% occurring just in the greater Los Angeles area. A dozen states had no incidents at all.
In most (65%) of the cases that ended in the death of an unarmed individual, police contact was initiated not by officer discretion but in response to a 911 call about a violent crime or a significant property crime in progress. These calls concerned such offenses as robberies, carjackings, domestic violence, burglaries, major vandalism, etc.
“There were 26 incidents that involved an assault by the unarmed civilian against another civilian before police arrived” and two cases of pre-arrival murder by the eventual decedent, the researchers report.
In addition, 7% of those who died were described by callers as “crazy,” “on drugs,” “covered with blood,” “yelling” or threatening people in some way. Two per cent were “wanted fugitives in the act of escape.”
In all, in nearly three of every four of the total cases, “other people [were] involved in bringing the police to the scene” with calls for help. “By definition,” Selby writes, “these were not self-dispatched calls, and the police didn’t select the person who ultimately died.” In responding, the involved officer “did not target any race or group other than ‘people in the process of committing often-violent crimes,’ ” the study concludes.
Just under 25% of the incidents studied, including some of the most controversial, began with a traffic stop. “We paid particular attention” to this group, Selby explains, because these contacts were officer-initiated and discretionary.
“[N]o pattern of systemic targeting by race” was found, the study reports. “Unarmed Blacks, Whites, and Hispanics were represented about equally….”
About 30% of unarmed black drivers, 22% of the whites, and 20% of the Hispanics who ended up dead “had a history of convictions for violent crimes.” Some 20% of driver deaths involved narcotics, with whites “nearly nine times more likely to have narcotics than Black or Hispanic drivers….”
In about 30% of incidents in which officers ultimately shot an unarmed subject to death, they first deployed a TASER, the study says. The researchers see this as “a clear indication that officers in [those] cases made one or more attempts to use lesser intrusive levels of force before using deadly force.” They went to a gun only after the conducted energy weapon was ineffective.
In 70% of the cases in which a CEW was used, the study notes, even that weapon was not deployed until after “the decedent assaulted the officer,” causing injury in a significant number of cases and “reach[ing] for or struggl[ing] for the officer’s gun” in some instances.
“Narcotics were involved in 38% of all TASER cases; methamphetamine in 13% and alcohol in 11%,” Selby writes. Where autopsy reports were available in CEW cases, nearly half concluded that “the cause of death stemmed from significant health issues.” Drug intoxication was also commonly cited as being influential.
In slightly more than half (64) of the 125 cases, “civilian, non-police witnesses” eyeballed the confrontation. In 60 of these, “some or all witnesses supported the police account” of what happened, the researchers found. In 40 cases, “[w]itnesses exclusively supported the police.”
In contrast, witnesses “exclusively disputed the police account” in only four cases.
When unarmed people die, especially in the current social climate, “police video is a crucial form of evidence that clearly promotes, and is in the true interest of, justice,” the researchers assert. Yet they could find released video related to only 26% of the incidents studied.
During the study period, there were “two very notorious cases in which witness video demonstrated that officers appeared to have fabricated their accounts in the killing of unarmed men,” Selby writes. “Equally important, there were two cases in which video…demonstrated conclusively that the police had told the truth in the killing of unarmed men.”
“Video does not always give us the totality of circumstances, even when it feels like it does,” Selby pointed out in the Calibre Press webinar. But without it, police “are going to be believed less and less.”
One of the critical takeaways of the study, Selby says, is that video “is absolutely essential to policing in the 21st century. The national push toward body-worn and dashcam video is sorely needed, and cannot move fast enough.”
WANT TO PARTICIPATE?
On the belief that fatal confrontations with unarmed individuals are most likely to surface any unreasonable uses of deadly force and in light of the fact that currently there is no mandatory reporting of statistics in this area, Selby plans to continue monitoring these events. He anticipates issuing an update to the “non-academic” study early next year and then quarterly thereafter.
He welcomes input from FSN readers. If you know of recent or upcoming cases in which unarmed subjects have died in police encounters, you can send notification and information about them to be sure they are included in the StreetCred database by CLICKING HERE.
Through that same link, you can apply to join the volunteer committee that reviews, classifies, and parses cases going forward. Include an explanation of the qualifications and special skills you have to offer.
Meanwhile, StreetCred Software, Inc. has joined forces with NOBLE (the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives) to convey to the public “evidence-based data reports” on police-related deaths of the unarmed.
“Our primary goal is to give community leaders, law enforcement administrators, activists, and journalists alike the tools they need to understand whether law enforcement is treating fairly and justly those it is sworn to protect,” Selby says. “Our partnership with NOBLE will facilitate better and faster gathering and dissemination of facts to all parties so that all sides may better examine and understand these incidents.”
Our thanks to Publisher Crawford Coates of Calibre Press, Inc., for helping to facilitate this report.