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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SM
SM
6 years ago

I understand that this is preliminary and presented as a basis for future research, but it’s disappointing and somewhat bizarre that a philosophical investigation of police shootings doesn’t mention race or racism a single time.Report

PC
PC
6 years ago

“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.”

Bull.

“To some [officers], drawing their guns, even with no present threat, is routine, a practice borne of habit or some internal gauge of an encounter that might go bad. And their [New York] bosses, unlike some police commanders around the country, permit it. So, in doing vertical patrols, the roof-to-ground sweeps through buildings, unholstering can be second nature.

“It apparently was for a young officer on patrol Thursday night in East New York, Brooklyn. In a darkened hallway in the Louis H. Pink Houses, the officer’s precaution turned fatal for an innocent young man.

“Late Thursday night in this dim stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project, Officer Peter Liang accidentally killed Akai Gurley, 28. City officials said it was an accident: Officer Peter Liang, 27, was walking through a hallway door at 2724 Linden Boulevard with his gun drawn when he fired a single bullet that traveled down a flight of stairs and struck 28-year-old Akai Gurley in the chest, killing him.

“Mr. Gurley was unarmed and innocent.”

From 11/25 NYT article, “For New York City Officers, Drawing Guns Is Based on Discretion, Not Rules”Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
6 years ago

My first reaction is to agree with SM, in the sense that this sort of project just seems dead on arrival without a consideration of race. Of course I understand that this project is preliminary and at a very high/general level that doesn’t consider how factors influence specific cases. But even at that level, race is important. For example, we can’t understand what this “threat seems probable” language is getting at without careful consideration of how race influences what officers take to be a probable threat.Report

marcus
marcus
6 years ago

While any full analysis of this sort of thing certainly requires adiscussion of race (as well as many other factors Christian doesn’t mention) it is important to understand the project, which is hinted at in the second paragraph quoted here.
the idea (to put it in more specific terms) is that if we focus on race then we’ll be stuck with liking at particular cases, with some seeing race as a factor and others denying it (indeindindthe situation in Ferguson is some indication of this).
This means, then, that those who see particular cases as racially motivated (or at least as race being a factor) will likely conclude that there is an institutional problem. But those who deny it in the cases will not. That, applied to the issue of race, is what Christian was saying in the second paragraph quoted here.

Thus, Christian is trying to see if we can go another route and still wind up with a conclusion similar to the one those who see race as as major factor come to (at least as regards the legitimacy of the shootings).
And given that police don’t *just* shoot people of color (even if that is more common) the question Christian is asking is larger than any mere question of racial bias.

So again, this doesn’t mean people shouldn’t explore the issue in terms of race. It is just to say that Christian gives some legitimate motivation for looking at the issue in a different way. And to reject the project simply because it doesn’t mention race is to fail to adequately account for that motivation. If you think that motivation is wrong headed, fair enough. But argue as such.Report

marcus
marcus
6 years ago

As regards Matt’s comment. I think you misunderstand Christian’s analysis of ‘probable threat’ which relates to what objective factors should be present for a threat to be probable.
This is quite different from what actual people in actual circumstances may actually take to be a probable threat. And your thought that the race of the putative threat may influence an officer’s judgment that a threat is probable is clearly important (and most likely right) but is, strictly speaking, a different question from the one Christian is asking.
In fact, a question like ‘how does the race of a putative threat influence an officer’s judgment of the probability or intensity of the threat?’ Would be a good follow-up project to Christian’s, since it seeks to understand the gulf between what should be the case and what is the case.Report

The Octagon
The Octagon
6 years ago

It is a five-page draft on a complex issue offering an interesting and compelling philosophical analysis that could easily be extended to apply to cover racial cases. I can’t see why not mentioning race here is either disappointing or bizarre. It’s just a formal analysis of a general problem. Remarks like this seem to me a bit more like grandstanding than real criticism.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
6 years ago

Two comments:

First, rather than accusing people of “misunderstanding” the post or of “grandstanding” (and doing so as anonymous chickenshits), I suspect the previous two commentators should review some of the criticisms out there of projects in political philosophy that fail to account in any meaningful way for issues of race and structural oppression. This very blog posted one of these criticisms not long ago.

I understand perfectly well what the project is trying to do – in part, to get at racial disparities through another means. But I think there’s a lot of reason to doubt whether that’s possible. And I worry that doing so runs the risk of not accounting for a lot of important work that has been done on race and power. In particular, I worry about the framing of our current situation as being one where we have to try to abstract from individual cases. I think the current literature is a lot more rich than that.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
6 years ago

Here is a review article on the neuroscience of racial bias in police “shoot / no-shoot” decisions. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/spc3.12099/abstract

As the authors note at the end, however, the inability to replicate conditions of fatigue and fear in the experiments call the ecological validity of all the findings into question.

The single best work on the empirical question of violence (i.e., how it happens, rather than its moral or juridical justification) is Randall Collins’s book: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8547.html Collins adds an important dimension of teamwork, i.e., “contagious violence,” as well as “forward panic.” As many but not all police shooting are by groups of police, these factors need to be present in any analysis.Report

JD
JD
6 years ago

Let me see if I understand. To raise concerns about race, it seems like we need to distinguish between two or three questions:

Question A: Is S doing X morally wrong?

Question B: Is S doing X racially motivated?

Question C: Can an affirmative answer for Question B negatively affect an answer to Question A?

Maybe I’m naive, but if we answer in the affirmative for Question A, then it’s not clear what work Question B would be doing for thinking about X.

Of course, answering Question B in the affirmative may motivate us to pursue systemic changes to prevent racially motivated wrongs such as X. But even so, I’m not sure, in real world cases, how to answer Question C in the affirmative.

[It will most likely be rare that we will know whether any of the individuals we’re talking about are overtly racist. So even if individuals are racially biased, they may nonetheless NOT have racist intentions.]

Now, if we think that we can answer Question C in the affirmative, then we risk a potentially unpalatable result. An individual may do something that would typically not be morally wrong. But if S was racially motivated, then either S DID do something morally wrong and/or S should not have so acted. Again, maybe I’m naive, but this seems to be the wrong result.Report