Violence begets Violence, and that Includes Police Shootings
In a recent editorial, The Washington Post summarized one of its own investigative reports that examined non-fatal police shootings in 156 police departments across the U.S. The analysis underlying the investigative was impressive, showing the proportions of fatal-to-non-fatal shootings in the police departments studied and highlighting some of the human costs associated with police shootings. In its summary of the report, the Post editorial noted that the number of police shootings was "startling" and suggested that such shootings are largely the result of an unaccountable police institution. And while it is likely true that some number (maybe even a significant number) of shootings in the Post's report resulted from officer misconduct or problematic police department firearms policies, it is equally likely that the majority of the police shootings identified in the Post are woven into the tapestry of America's larger gun violence epidemic.
To be clear, 3,746 police shootings across 156 police departments nationwide from 2015-2020 (as the Post reported) seems like a startling number, especially when contextualized against the backdrop of a few high-profile and tragic, police killings in recent years. But how startling are those numbers when considered against a different backdrop, say, the levels and spatial distribution of overall gun violence the citizenry commits against itself, particularly in U.S. cities where gun violence and police shootings are most likely to occur.
Take Philadelphia, as one such city. The Philadelphia Police Department, which has had its share of police accountability problems in its immediate history, serves a city of 1.6 million residents and owns one of the higher homicide and violent crime rates among U.S. big cities. The city posts all of its shooting victimization data on its OpenDataPhilly website, making such data freely accessible to the public. An examination of the shooting victimization data from 2017-2022 shows the following:
# of Shooting Victimizations
# Police Shootings
% Shootings Police Related
Since 2017, police shootings have represented roughly 1 percent or less of all shootings in the city. As the numbers of general shootings have increased from year to year since 2017, the numbers of police shootings have remained fairly constant, even declining in the last couple years. In fact, the share of police shootings between 2017 and point-in-time 2022 have actually decreased a considerable extent.
Moreover, as seen in the map below (a screenshot of the operations dashboard I maintain through Esri's ArcGIS Online), virtually every police shooting (indicated as a blue point) in Philadelphia has occurred in a location surrounded by clusters of non-officer-involved shootings (indicated by red points). Even in the greater area of Northeast Philadelphia, where fewer shootings occurred, the police shootings were located in close proximity to other non-officer-involved shootings.
For the most part, police shootings do not occur in a vacuum. They are part of the fabric of the overall gun violence problem in Philadelphia, and very likely, other U.S. cities.
Society arms the police with guns and then mandates police departments to control crime. When police officers enter communities, they become part of social ecology of the places they police, meaning that they are affected by local conditions just as residents and other visitors are. And while alternatives to deadly force exist (e.g., conductive energy weapons, beanbag guns, pepper spray), reliable substitutions for deadly force do not. How do we not expect the police to use their guns when the citizenry itself seems to favor the use of guns to resolve conflict?
Again, while The Washington Post's investigative report was enlightening and important for the information it shared, the subsequent editorial missed the point when it couched police-involved shootings primarily as a problem of police accountability. By and large, police shootings are a byproduct of the overall gun violence epidemic in America. To reduce police shootings in any meaningful and systematic way means reducing the overall number of shootings in this country.
Robert J. Kane is Professor and Head, Department of Criminology and Justice Studies at Drexel University, and the coauthor of Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department. His current book, Policing Beyond Coercion: A 'New' Idea for a Twenty-first Century Mandate (Aspen Publishing), was released in October 2022. Follow on Twitter @rjohnkane