A Spotlight on Police Killings

by on March 16, 2017

Protest against Laquan McDonald killing

Since Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson in 2014, police killings in the United States have been recognized as a national crisis. But as Franklin Zimring shows in his new book, When Police Kill, the steps necessary to reduce the number of killings has yet to occur.

Police in the United States kill roughly 1000 people annually. This is “4.6 times that of Canada, twenty-two times that of Australia, forty times higher than Germany, and more than 125 times the police shooting deaths for England and Wales.” And while the U.S. is overall a more violent society, Zimring shows that America’s police killing rate is far higher than the different rates of homicides generally.

This is among the many pieces of disturbing information in this book.

Lack of Data

Zimring finds many structural problems with how police killings are handled in the United States. Among them is the troubling lack of data. Zimring shows how even trying to discover how many people are killed by police in the United States is a major struggle; “official” police stats identify only half of the 1000 that Zimring uncovered through The Guardian newspaper reports.

How do police departments get away with this?  There is no pressure on most to provide data on police killings. Absent public pressure the number of shootings is not tabulated and the details not provided.

Zimring notes the contrast between the procedural hurdles preceding state executions and the police killing of a civilian. State executions in the United States require the victim to be formally charged with a crime, provided free legal representation, and convicted of murder before a jury. The victim has the right to exhaust their full right of criminal appeals. Courts may stop the process at many points, including rejecting the means the state has chosen to kill. Regardless of how obvious the guilt or heinous the crime, it often takes more than a decade for the execution process to lead to the state killing (for example, Arkansas has been rushing to kill eight men  convicted of murders that occurred between 1989 and 1999).

In contrast, Laquan McDonald was murdered by a Chicago police officer on October 20, 2014 without receiving any due process. He was put to death without a trial despite being innocent of any crime McDonald, like Oakland’s Oscar Grant and a list of police victims too long to list, was killed out of an officer’s subjective view of “street justice.” Not surprisingly, Zimring finds that African-Americans are far more likely to be killed in circumstances where a police shooting cannot be unjustified by the officer’s reasonable fears for their safety.

Zimring also shows how irrational rules, such as the “21-foot rule” that allows police to shoot people holding a knife within 21 feet of the officer, encourage wrongful killings. Over 200 people are killed by police annually who are holding a knife, club, bat or hammer; yet statistics show the only officers killed from such instruments are right next to their assailant.

Absent accountability for police who wrongfully kill—and police departments’ failure to even keep accurate numbers on killings is part of this—the United States will continue to lead the world in police killings.

Prospects for Change

Zimring wants to get America’s police departments on a new path. He came to this project after years studying the New York City police department. His account of NYC’s remarkable record of reducing crime, The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control, is a must read book for anyone concerned with neighborhood crime prevention.

In that book Zimring shows that hot-spot policing, not stop and frisk, was the key to New York City’s unprecedented crime reduction since the 1990’s. Zimring dispels common myths about street crime, refuting the belief that moving people from their drug sale hot spots only causes them to relocate nearby. No, it doesn’t. I concluded after reading Zimring’s book that if San Francisco committed the resources to fully staff a hot-spot policing effort in the Tenderloin the remaining areas of public drug activity would be gone.

I mention Zimring’s years studying New York City because it has led him to the (optimistic?) view that we can meaningfully reduce police shootings in the United States. Noting how other cities implemented New York City’s successful crime reduction strategies, Zimring states “An ambitious and charismatic police chief who succeeded in substantial reductions in unnecessary lethal violence could become a personal icon in the effort, in effect the Johnny Appleseed of making civilian lives matter in American policing.”

I hope new San Francisco Police Chief William Scott and Oakland’s new Chief Anne Kirkpatrick read this book. Both cities should become the national model that Zimring seeks.

At a time when leading political figures scorn uncomfortable facts, Franklin Zimring documents more fully than ever before the outrageous crisis of unnecessary police shootings. He shows that successful policing does not require excessive police shootings, and that such killings can be sharply reduced without major changes in police effectiveness.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He discusses policing in the Tenderloin in The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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