How Many Police Shootings Are Too Many?

How Many Police Shootings Are Too Many?


Let’s step back and be honest. This is a big country. Thousands of dangerous confrontations occur between police and civilians, decisions need to be made in a split second and under duress. Tragic mistakes will happen. And beyond innocent mistakes” we can surely foresee some “mistakes” that won’t be innocent. In investigating these cases we can, sadly, also predict police will sometimes err on the side of protecting their own rather than doling out impartial justice. In short, we should expect some serious injustices to occur,though we needn’t tolerate or condone them. Law enforcement officers and administration-—like any every other profession—-will have its share of “bad apples.”

Even so, many are convinced that we’re facing a problem that’s bigger than the expected “bad apples.” But how could we know? Is there any way to support that conviction? How could we, when we can’t even draw shared conclusions about the individual cases? Finding abuses in a few cases tells us little about the situation at large—isthis a “bad apple” or even just a bad department, or a symptom of a larger institutional problem? If the only way to answer this second question—whether there’s a larger institutional problem—is by “building up” from the conflicting evidence we have in individual cases, then we may seem doomed to live with our pre-conceptions: Those who see injustice in the individual cases will find an institutional crisis; those who do not, will not.

That is from a draft of a short essay by Christian Coons (Bowling Green), entitled “How Many Police Shootings are Tragic Mistakes? How Many Can We Tolerate?” (brought to my attention by Arthur Ward). In it, Coons sets out a way for assessing how many shootings are too many. He considers several factors along the way. For example:

Initially, it might seem that police should have a lower survival rate than the real threats they face. After all, a real threat isn’t merely one who has the immediate means and state of mind to kill-—it’s one who has also already manifested these features. In short, real threats always get to “draw first”—-the police must wait for at least some evidence of the threat. This huge and inherent police disadvantage—call it the “defender’s disadvantage”—is one of the many reasons why police work can be considered heroic.

From his modeling of the phenomenon of police shootings—acknowledging that the model could be improved with greater data and expertise—he concludes that there are, indeed, too many police shootings:

For some, it may seem that given the complexities and the danger of these situations, there’s nothing deeply wrong with 3 out of 4 shootings ending in a tragic mistake. I disagree. Officers, it seems, should shoot only when a threat seems probable. On that view, if officer’s judgments are fairly reliable then we should expect no more than half tragic mistakes. On the other hand, if officer’s judgments about who is a threat are not at all reliable, then they shouldn’t be using lethal force at all. 

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