Criminologist Darrell Ross has studied “out of control” police:
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!