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Editorial: Progress on deadly force issues with St. Louis police

Editorial: Progress on deadly force issues with St. Louis police

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The latest study of shootings by officers of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department should be reassuring to the public in many ways.

The department is doing a better job of training its officers on how to react and what to anticipate. It is doing a better, more professional job of investigating shooting incidents.

But the study, by University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist David A. Klinger, suggests there is significant room for more improvement, particularly in the area of public accountability. Mr. Klinger’s study, presented to the Board of Police Commissioners in August, was closely held until it was reported last week by Christine Byers of the Post-Dispatch.

In his study, Mr. Klinger suggests that the department should make public the results of investigations into police shootings, including the names of officers involved. The St. Louis Police Officers Association opposes that idea, fearing that making officers’ names public could subject them to retaliation.

Full transparency would be a drastic change for a department which, under 151 years of state control, has liked to keep a lid on. But in July, thanks to last month’s passage of Proposition A, the city will regain control of the police department. Issues surrounding disclosure, including the experience in cities that disclose the results of internal investigations, should be reviewed then.

David Klinger, 54, is nobody’s idea of a cop-basher. His 2004 book, “Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force,” opens with this startling paragraph: “Edward Randolph was 26 years old when I killed him. I was 23.”

He was on the Los Angeles Police Department that July night in 1981. His partner, Dennis Azevedo, was being stabbed by a man with a butcher knife. Mr. Klinger first tried to wrestle the knife away from the attacker. “I then heard Dennis shout, ‘Shoot him!’ So I did.”

In 1983, Mr. Klinger left the LAPD for a police job in a Seattle suburb. The next year he quit to pursue an academic career and joined the UMSL faculty in 1999. He may have thought more about police shootings than anyone in America.

Americans, he wrote, “are drawn to police shootings not just because they are violent acts but also because they are the most dramatic instance of government doing battle with the bad guys that threaten us. And we are repulsed by them not only because of the damage they inflict but also because they are the ultimate form of government intrusion.”

Mr. Klinger’s first study of St. Louis police shootings, completed in 2009, raised some troubling questions about how well the department was managing the life-and-death responsibilities given to its officers.

Once a young cop left the academy, the only training he got was biannual qualifications at the firing range and a monthly reminder about use of deadly force policies. Shooting investigations were sloppy, sometimes conducted by the officers involved. There were no what-have-we-learned reviews of tactics.

A story in January by the Post-Dispatch’s Jennifer Mann reported more troubling issues: Between 2006 and 2010, St. Louis cops fired their weapons far more frequently, per 1,000 violent crimes, than officers in 16 other big cities. All investigative reports were sealed, and no outside agency reviewed them.

Things are better now, Mr. Klinger’s latest report shows. Homicide detectives investigate incidents where someone is shot. District detectives investigate incidents where shots miss. There is more and better training, and a tactical review of every incident.

One gaping hole: There is no national database on police shootings, no way to measure conclusively the indicators that officers here fire their weapons more often than cops in other cities. A national database, correlated with data on criminal populations, would be immensely useful.

Together with outgoing Police Chief Dan Isom, who will join UMSL’s faculty in January, Mr. Klinger is hoping to develop that kind of data. With better training and better investigations, it should make cops and citizens alike safer.

Kevin Horrigan is deputy editorial page editor of the Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @oldsport.

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