The journal Nature earlier this month conducted a review of available data and research into police shootings of civilians around the country but with special emphasis on metropolitan St. Louis, which has one of the highest per capita rates of police shootings of civilians in the country.
The purpose of the review wasn’t so much to single out St. Louis or to blame police for all ills involving urban gun violence. Rather, it used nationwide police reforms in the post-Ferguson era to weigh the multiple factors, including racial bias and a growing presence of guns on the streets, that contribute to violent police-civilian encounters. It makes clear that much work remains to be done.
One interesting perspective highlighted in the report is a dramatic increase in police shootings of unarmed civilians in numerous cities. The steady loosening of gun-possession laws has had the effect of putting officers constantly on the defensive. In decades past, when gun laws were far more restrictive, police could assume that most civilians they encountered were unlikely to be armed. Today, police are much more prone to regard all civilians as potentially armed and, therefore, dangerous.
Officers are on edge because state and national lawmakers have helped put far too many guns into the hands of the wrong people. In countries that tightly restrict civilian gun ownership, such as Australia or Britain, civilian deaths at the hands of police amount to fewer than a dozen a year. “Generally, when a police officer pulls up to a car in Australia, they don’t expect someone to be armed,” criminologist Terry Goldsworthy was quoted as saying.
Nevertheless, in a 2017 Pew Research Center national survey of police officers, 76% said they have become more reluctant to use force when appropriate, suggesting the “Ferguson effect” lingers.
Much of the Nature review dealt with what it described as a frustrating lack of comprehensive data on police use of force, especially when the targets are minority suspects. National-scale databases “are inherently messy,” the report states, citing disparate definitions of the “use of force” and a lack of standardized reporting requirements. The FBI has spent three years developing a National Use-of-Force Data Collection covering dozens of variables, including fatal and non-fatal injuries, resulting from police-civilian encounters. But local law enforcement agencies contribute their data only on a voluntary basis, rendering the database incomplete. And the public can’t yet examine the data.
So analysts must rely on lots of anecdotal evidence, such as a Dallas survey of police that showed officers were more likely to draw their firearms on minority suspects than on whites. It would be nice to know if officers around St. Louis have the same tendency.
Until the FBI decides to share what it has, public impressions of police behavior are likely to be based on accusations and emotions instead of hard facts. That can only make a dangerous situation even more so.