With 788 people killed by police this year alone, death at the hands of law enforcement has become so routine in this country that it risks becoming expected and predictable, as if it were inevitable. Every time a new video emerges, anger soars, as do calls to end police violence. Then invariably, within days or sometimes mere hours, police somewhere else kill again.
This week was no exception. Last night, the now familiar scene of angry protests met with tear gas unfolded again, this time in Charlotte, North Carolina, after a police officer shot and killed Keith L. Scott, a 43-year-old black father who had been sitting in his car waiting to pick up a child from school. Police said on Wednesday that Scott was holding a gun, which they said they later recovered, and that he ignored orders to drop it. Scott’s family said he had been holding a book, and his daughter speculated that police would plant evidence on the scene. The officer who killed Scott was not wearing a body camera.
Debate over such details, too, has become common, and increasingly supplemented by video evidence that has rarely made a difference in bringing about greater accountability. Just hours before Scott was killed, police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, released footage showing another black man, Terence Crutcher, being shot to death by a police officer while he walked away, unarmed, and with his hands up. A week earlier, Tyre King, a 13-year-old with a BB gun who was reportedly running away from police, was killed by a Columbus, Ohio, police officer who had killed someone else in 2012.
But as commonplace as they have become, police killings are neither inevitable nor even that hard to prevent, and a new report released today suggests that curbing police violence is really not rocket science when departments and local officials are committed to doing it.
The “Police Use of Force Project” is an initiative of Campaign Zero, a group that came together in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests to research and recommend solutions to end death at the hands of police. Not surprisingly, their latest research showed that police departments that implement stricter use of force regulations kill significantly fewer people.
As police regulations vary widely between departments, researchers examined the policies of 91 of the country’s 100 largest cities’ departments, looking for eight major policies regulating the use of force. They wanted to see which departments implement the following eight policies:
- Require officers to de-escalate situations before resorting to force
- Limit the kinds of force that can be used to respond to specific forms of resistance
- Restrict chokeholds
- Require officers to give verbal warning before using force
- Prohibit officers from shooting at moving vehicles
- Require officers to exhaust all alternatives to deadly force
- Require officers to stop colleagues from exercising excessive force
- Require comprehensive reporting on use of force
Not a single department was found to implement all eight policies.
But even common-sense practices such as de-escalating situations or exhausting alternatives before resorting to deadly force were required, respectively, of only 34 and 31 of the 91 departments examined. Only 30 departments required officers to intervene to stop a colleague from exercising excessive force, and only 15 required officers to report on all uses of force, including threatening civilians with a firearm.
Police departments are often resistant to restrictions demanded by reform advocates, but those policies work, the report showed. Police departments that had implemented each use of force policy were less likely to kill people than police departments that had not, and the lowest rates of police killings were associated with those departments that had implemented four or more policies — only about a third of the country’s largest departments.
“Few departments have implemented all or most of these policies,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, one of the researchers who worked on the report, “in part because of resistance from police unions that claim more restrictive policies will endanger officers.”
On average, researchers calculated, the addition of each use of force requirement could be associated with a 15 percent reduction in killings — and adopting all eight could lead to a 72 percent reduction in killings.
“A large proportion of police killings could be prevented through common sense policy changes that have yet to be adopted by the nation’s foremost police and city leaders,” the authors noted. “More restrictive use of force policies — and the accountability structures to enforce them — can produce dramatic reductions in the number of people killed by police.”
Better regulation of use of force is better for police, too, as the report also shows that the numbers of officers assaulted or killed in the line of duty decreased in proportion with the number of regulations adopted by their department.