Police use of force: don't force it

It is healthy to look at police use of force incidents with a sober eye. A prudent skepticism of government force is necessary, expected and welcomed — even by police. This keeps those responsible for our safety and entrusted with so much authority accountable to public they serve. Without it, who would "watch the watchmen"?

Choosing the 36 largest cities as a representative sample makes sense, and the work invested in The Texas Tribune's "Unholstered" series is commendable. The largest cities have the highest population density, and the data given shows that Houston and Dallas made up nearly half of the shootings in the study.

When race is added, the study shows the total African-American population for the all of the cities as 14 percent. It is worth noting that the two cities that comprise nearly half of all of the shootings both have African-American populations well above that average (Dallas was 25 percent in 2010, Houston was 23.7 percent) since those higher concentrations in such large metropolitan areas will necessarily skew the state average.

However, reducing a police-involved shooting to only a statistic based on city, race, armed, or unarmed suspects or other factors inevitably leaves out too much relevant detail. There is a real story — a human story — behind every squeeze of the trigger, good or bad. Any cookie-cutter approach to data, making everything fit nicely into one category or another, runs the risk of furthering a narrative that may need substantively more information for true utility in policymaking or justice. To paraphrase Burke, context gives quality to all things — including police shootings. To mention statistics in a vacuum may inform an argument, but to assume that hard conclusions may be drawn from them alone clouds it.

Are there issues of race and differential treatment that need to be explored in the criminal justice system? There is no doubt that there are — and the Tribune does the public a service in furthering that public conversation. Are police officers more likely to shoot African-Americans, in an unjust disparity? Here we are on questionable ground with the data presented, and the Tribune deserves credit for refraining from making that explicit claim.

Raw data — without informed interpretation — can lead to that conclusion if one is predisposed to believe it, but when properly interpreted there is little real evidence to support such a claim.

The problem with blanket condemnation of police shootings or uses of force is that the truly bad shootings do less to "shock our collective conscience." The South Carolina shooting of an unarmed African-American running from a police officer is an example. The officer was rightfully charged with murder — yet this case has largely faded from the public consciousness, as new outrages, real and imagined, have entered the public consciousness.

The march in Dallas resulted in even more tragedy than just the murders of five dedicated police officers. That peaceful protest demanding reform, being protected by those being protested, was the embodiment of the First Amendment. Dallas police officers were taking pictures with the protestors, public servants alongside those they swore to protect, no matter the irony of the situation. What should be remembered as a uniquely American moment is now only remembered for the actions of a murderous madman. Blanket condemnation of police shootings share a common deleterious effect: The good and the bad fail to be seen as such.

Each shooting, each use of force, must be evaluated on its own merit, and are sometimes completely unavoidable. An article tabulating the shootings of "unarmed" individuals, published alongside one that discusses race disparities another that claims officers are "given wide discretion to shoot" when off-duty teases those most easily influenced into blanket condemnation — and does not take into account the specifics of each case.

An academic crunching numbers from a database while sitting at a desk may have little regard for the realities of a fight at 3 a.m. in an alley with someone much larger trying to take away an officer's gun and punching her in the face repeatedly. The officer, if she shoots her assailant, knows she will be scrutinized all the more for his being unarmed. She has accepted that scrutiny as a necessary part of her place, policing a democratic society, long before she pulls the trigger.

The Texas Tribune is to be commended for contributing to a critical public discussion, but we owe it to the police officer to evaluate her actions based on this incident alone, not to cloud it by lumping it in with some bad shootings and demographic data. We owe the victims of bad police shootings the clarity of their tragedy and not to cloud how badly they were wronged by lumping them in with criminals that were lawfully shot.

Disclosure: Right on Crime is part of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has been a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Randy Petersen

Senior researcher, Right on Crime

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