A Review of In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians

This is a review of In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians, a book by Nick Selby, Ben Singleton, and Ed Flosi.

In Context is an excellent case-by-case analysis of each US police killing of unarmed civilians in 2015. Three law enforcement experts (the authors) used public sources, their own training and experience, and a solid understanding of the law to give opinions on each of these unfortunate incidents. (Be prepared to be upset in reading this book, especially the cases; every one of them is unquestionably sad.)

Police killings of unarmed civilians (a specifically defined group — the presumption is that these incidents could be the most egregious uses of force) are documented more than most police/civilian interactions in the press, and have in many cases been major news stories both locally and nationally. This is a major political issue now — some people believing police are killing out of murderous or racist intent, other people denying that every civilian death is completely unavoidable and entirely the fault of the deceased. The only thing these sides have in common is that neither argues from data, and both have pre-existing ideas about what the causes and solutions are. Reality is far more complicated.

By doing the hard work to assemble the data and analyze all of these cases, the authors have uncovered the reality of the problem — police killings of unarmed civilians are not a monolithic set, but several distinct types of cases. There is no single solution, but several major categories can be addressed in turn. The raw data set is available as the StreetCred Police Killings in Context dataset.

The authors are all experts — I have a reasonable degree of familiarity with the law of self defense from a civilian perspective, having taken about 200 hours of range and classroom training from Front Sight, Massad Ayoob, and others, as well as experience in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan as a contractor, and many friendships with lawyers, law enforcement, and self defense experts — and I was pleased to see that my conclusions were fairly similar to theirs. I know Nick Selby from technology law, so I already understood his position, but after reading about 10 cases, realized I agreed with the other two authors to a similar degree. They are not, as one might expect from police officers, blindly supportive of police — they are certainly respectful of officers and their job, but did not hesitate to criticize and critique incidents where things could be improved. All three of them are exactly the kind of people I’d like to see responding to an incident if I call for service.

The first point from reading the book (and forming my own opinion on the data, although largely the same as the authors) — police killings of unarmed civilians are thankfully a relatively low number. Obviously the only acceptable number is zero, but out of the millions of police interactions per year, often at the worst moments of someone’s life, 153 is lower than I would have expected. However, these incidents, while they receive a higher amount of press coverage than most incidents, do not have any central reporting or cataloging of data, so there are incidents in which public data is insufficient to make an accurate evaluation. Given the critical severity of these incidents, and the societal benefit to having the citizenry oversee the actions of its paid police forces, I believe there should be a formal reporting and investigation procedure, independent of the involved agency, for every death involving the police, particularly of unarmed civilians. Unfortunately, local news media are not necessarily in a position to uncover and publish the truth of these incidents, and there is a substantial interest in aggregating all of these incidents and generalizing trends, rather than focusing only on each incident in isolation.

A second big takeaway from this book is that in a lot of these cases, it was a “police attended death”, more so than something intentionally caused by the police. In many cases, a person has taken drugs/alcohol to excess, or has an underlying mental or physical disorder, or is otherwise in a state of trauma, and then dies subsequent to police interaction. In some of these cases, police used non-lethal force (TASER, physical restraint) and the civilian dies, but it is very unlikely the force used caused the death, and even less likely that the force used was reasonably believed to be likely to cause a death. There has to be a solution to this — perhaps better emergency medical training for police, perhaps technology — but it’s not a case of police intentionally doing things to cause death. My biggest criticism of policing is that police are not equipped and required, when force protection/officer safety would allow, to provide the same level of immediate lifesaving aid they would provide another officer to any civilian, including one with whom they just had a use-of-force encounter with.

A subset of this is that mental health and substance abuse are critical problems in America, and must be addressed far upstream of violent interactions with the police. This is a much bigger problem than just police killings of this group — even absent that, their lives are often nasty, brutish, and short, and as a country, we owe them something far better.

Third: police should be more willing to use a wider variety of force, rather than progressing immediately to deadly force once one non-lethal force option has failed. The most egregious example seems to be the TASER — in several incidents, officers seemed to only be choosing between an TASER and a firearm, not considering the use of physical force, baton strikes, OC spray, or other implements. There are many potential causes for this, but they all come down to training, standards, and leadership. If a force is not trained to behave in a certain way, and if officers are not held accountable to that standard, they won’t behave that way when needed. While it’s viscerally revolting to see a police officer use physical force to subdue a suspect, and while this may lead to injuries to both suspect and officer, it’s far preferable to an officer progressing to deadly force when deadly force could otherwise be avoided. There are obviously cases where progressing immediately to deadly force, or going directly from one non-lethal to one deadly-force options is the correct response, but there appear to be some avoidable civilian killings where alternative non-lethal force may have been an option.

Fourth: it appears police are often putting themselves at more risk than they must, and this leads to avoidable civilian killings as well. In cases where there’s no immediate risk to life of the officer or other civilians, it is far better to contain a threat and bring additional resources to bear (overwhelming force, technology, or simple exhaustion on the part of the civilian), rather than to engage. There was one especially horrible incident where thieves had broken into an empty structure at night, triggering an alarm, and the officer entered to clear the alarm, rather than waiting for backup, which turned into a struggle and then shooting. That could have been avoided if he had cordoned the area and waited for backup.

Fifth, there is an opportunity to use better technology to both reduce the number of civilian killings and to protect police and make them more effective. While there has been criticism of “militarization of police”, continued research and development of non-lethal force options, improved data gathering tools (police-worn body cameras, most acutely), and possibly better tools for medical and psychiatric intervention during and after incidents (such as simulators in training, and improved monitoring and first aid tools deployable by police) could save lives.

From what I saw of these incidents, I didn’t see any particular racial or other bias on the part of the officers, at least in the overwhelming majority of cases, leading to police killings. However, minorities are unquestionably on the receiving end of many of these incidents. Why?

For those who believe “the system” is racist — I agree. However, at the point of police use of deadly force, the system is the most mechanical and most scrutinized, and thus the least likely to show racial bias, so the correct place to look is upstream of these incidents. Drugs, poverty, and mental illness are clearly the overriding factor in many of these incidents, and those problems disproportionately affect minority individuals and communities. Addressing those problems, and any unique factors (employment discrimination, geography, lack of access to education and health care, etc.) would lead to fewer police killings of unarmed minority civilians (and to fewer killings overall).

Police use of force in incidents which do not result in killings, and use of force in situations other than by police (such as by corrections officers in prisons) were not addressed in this book, and themselves are also far more likely to have a racial or discriminatory component. Police engaged in the use of deadly force are certainly aware that they will be “under a microscope” after the incident, and are acting according to training. Authorities in other contexts, with more time to act, less certainty of observation, and overall lower stakes for themselves are far more likely to engage in out of policy violence.

In short — racism by security forces is more likely to occur when a minority suspect is unnecessarily stopped, more forcefully searched, or otherwise not given the same status as any other citizen, than when a police officer is at the point of using deadly force. And it is far more likely still to occur when a minority family must live in a high-crime neighborhood due to poverty and lack of access to jobs and education.

Overall, In Context is an excellent review of the available information on every police killing in the US of an unarmed civilian in a single year, and some excellent policy ideas on how to improve policing and civilian oversight of policing in the future. Hopefully it will lead to additional, data-based analyses of other forms of police interactions, and to substantive improvements in society.

In Context is available from Amazon.com as a Kindle e-book.

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