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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Armed and Dangerous:Who the Police Shoot and Why

     Since Jaunuary 1, 2011, I have been using the internet to compile a national database of police involved shootings. The term "police involved shooting" pertains to law enforcement officers who, in the line of duty, discharge thier guns. When journalists and police administrators use the term, they include the shooting of animals and shots that miss their targets. My case files only include instances in which a person is either killed or wounded by police gunfire. My data also includes off-duty officers who discharge their weapons in law enforcement situations. They don't include, for example, a case involving an officer murdering his wife.
     My research of police involved shootings is in service to a book I plan to write called "Armed and Dangerous: Who the Police Shoot and Why."  It is not intended as an indictment of the police but an attempt to shed light on a reality of American life that has yet to be explored in any detail. One reason for that involves the fact there is no such thing as a national database on how many people the police shoot every year. Morevoer, there is no place to go to find out how many people the police shot, lets say, in California or Pittsburgh during any period of time.  That's why I decided to create my own case repository of police involved shootings. I'm doing this with the knowledge that while I am probably missing some cases, I will catch enough of them to make my study worthwhile.

     Although there are no nationwide police shooting statistics from previous years for comparison to 2011 cases, I believe, based on local statistics published in newspaper articles and law enforcement reports, that police shootings of civilians are on the rise nationally.

     The government does maintain records on how many police officers are killed every year in the line of duty. In 2010, fifty-nine officers were shot to death among 122 killed while on the job. This marked a twenty percent jump from 2009 when forty-nine officers were killed by gunfire. This year so far, more than seventy officers have been shot to death. Not all of these shootings, however, were associated with the cases involving the police shootings of civilians. However, the fact police officers feel they are increasingly under attack may help explain why they are shooting so many citizens.

     During the first eight months of 2011, law enforcement officers, according to my figures, have shot 768 people with 430 of these shootings being fatal encounters. About forty officers have been shot in these civilian-police encounters. Most police invovled shootings feature local officers followed by sheriff's deputies, state police and federal agents. About half of these shootings occured in the largest urban centers with the rest in little towns, small cities and rural areas. The state with the most 2011 shootings (number of people shot) is California followed by Florida, Illinois and Texas.


California 117 (73 fatal); Florida 74 (41); Illinois 49 (41); Texas 46 (19); Ohio 34 (21); Pennsylvania 33 (11); and New York 32 (14). It is interesting to note that the police in Ohio killed more people than the police in New York, a state with 8 million more citizens. States with no police shootings as of September 1, 2011 are:Wyoming, Vermont, Delaware and Rhode Island. States with two or less incluce Alaska, South Dakota, Montana and North Dakota.

SHOOTINGS BY CITY (As of September 2011)

Chicago 38, Miami 28, Los Angeles 16, Las Vegas 14, Philadelphia 12, New York 11, Columbus, OH 10, Phoenix 10, St. Louis 8, Tucson 7, Milwaulkee 7, Aurora, CO 7, Houston 7, Albuquerque 6, Orlando 6, Atlanta 6, Cleveland 6, Mesa, AZ 5, Baltimore 5, San Fransicso 5.  It is interesting to note that the police in Albuquerque killed as many people as the police in New York City, and three more than the police in Houston, the country's fourth largest city. Officers in Columbus, Ohio killed twice as many people as the police in Philadelphia and three times as many as the officers in St. Louis. In 2011 (as of September 1), the police in Denver shot one person. In the smaller adjacent city of Aurora, the police shot seven. Is it the police, or the citizens of these two places that accounts for these differences? It's questions like this I hope to answer with my study.


     A vast majority of the people shot by the police are men between the ages twenty-five and forty who have criminal histories. Overall, people shot by the police are much older than the typical first-time arrestee. A significant number of the people shot by the police are in their forties and fifties. Also shot are folks in their sixties, seventies and even eighties. Less than ten percent of civilians shot during the first eight months of 2011 were women. Except for a 17-year-old female bank burglar in Lansing, Michigan, these women were in their late twenties to early forties. Many of them had histories of mental illness or emotional distress and were armed with knives.

     Most police shooting victims were armed with handguns. The next most common weapon involved vehicles (used as weapons) followed by knives (and other sharp objects), shotguns, and rifles. Very few of these people possessed assault weapons and a small percentage were unarmed.

     The situation that brought police shooters and their targets together include domestice and other disturbances; crimes in progress such as robbery, assault and carjacking; the execution of arrest warrants; drug raids; gang activities; routine traffic stops; car chases; and standoff and hostage situations. This year, in Miami and San Francisco, the police shot innocent bystanders.

     Women make up about five percent of the nation's uniformed police services. During the first eight months of 2011, twenty polcewomen wounded or killed civilians in the line of duty. None of these officers had shot anyone in the past. This was not true of male officers. While the vast majority of police officers never fire their guns in the line of duty, a significant number of those who did this year have shot someone before.

     Almost all police involved shootings, while investigated by special units, prosecutor's offices or an outside police agency, are investigated by governmental law enforcement personnel. It is perhaps not surprising that more than 95 percent of all police involved shootings are ruled administratively and legally justified. A handful of cases lead to wrongful death lawsuits. Even fewer result in criminal prosecutions of the shooters.

     The reason the police in America shoot so many people involves a combination of factors such as the increased use of militarized, hair-trigger police tactics; relaxed use of deadly force policies; and a growing population of violent, drugged and/or mentally ill citizens. As I continue my reseach I will update this site. If you have insight into this important law enforcement/public policy issue, please get in touch.


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