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by Peter Moskos

March 14, 2011

Mistaken-Identity Police Shootings in Black and White

The death of a Nassau County police officer got me thinking about cases of police officers shot by other cops. There's the belief out there that black officers are much more at risk of being mistaken for suspects than are white officers. It's also been said (by me?) that such accidental mistaken-identity shootings almost never happen to white officers. Officer Breitkopf is white.

So this afternoon I went to the Officer Down Memorial Page. I've found the data at Officer Down to be quite reliable and comprehensive. I looked at all deaths involving accidental police shooting of police officers. This does not include officers who were shot and lived. Or officers who didn't meet Officer Down's criteria for being killed on duty. But generally when officers get in any such situation, they're considered on duty. And I wouldn't expect including those data to change the basic findings.

I went back as far as 1960 and looked at the descriptions to determine which officers were killed after being mistaken for suspects (ie: not "friendly fire" or accidents--though I should point out that training grounds seem particularly prone to accidental lethal shooting). At least 47 officers have been killed in such split-second cases of mistaken identity. I then looked at the pictures of the deceased officer to judge race (they were all pretty clear cut). I then coded for the circumstances of the killings based on the description given. (So, what did you do this afternoon?) I ended up selected only those killed since 1976 because half of those between 1960-1976 didn't have pictures. That brought the total number of officers number down to 28 (which was lower than I expected).

Here are the basic facts:

Since 1976, at least 28 officers have been shot and killed by other police who thought the police officer was a bad guy with a gun. (Or bad girl. Two officers killed were women, which surprised me.)

15 of these officers were white; 11 were black; 2 were hispanic. (I was surprised to find that so many white officers have been killed in such circumstances. Before yesterday, I knew of exactly two cases, and one of those was from 1972.)

3 officers were in uniform (all 3 of whom were white); 22 were in plainclothes. (And there were a few unknowns.)

19 were off duty before the incident started; 9 were on duty.

Racially, the only thing that jumps out is that 8 of 11 black officers were off duty and 14 in 15 white officers who were on duty.

39% of officer shot and killed in cases of mistaken identity were African-American. But what does that mean? What's the denominator? Should it be the percentage of black officers? Do we even know what percentage of police nationwide are black? I asked the kind people at the National Black Police Association if they could tell me. I got a quick reply saying they didn't have such a number handy, but would guess around 10 percent (or 80,000 out of 800,000) of police nationwide are African-American.

Or perhaps the denominator should be the race of those working plainclothes? Or narcotics (about one-third of cases I could determine involved drug enforement)?

Or maybe we should look at the race of officers living in higher-crime districts? That seems to be the biggest contributing factor with regards to black officers getting involved in off-duty incidents.

Perhaps it's more important to look at the demographics of the area in which the shooting took place? Or the race of the suspects in the incident? Or the race of the police officer who fired the lethal shot?

Of course most police officers officers are not black, so compared to white officers, black officers are disproportionately killed (about four times more likely) by other police mistaking them for suspects. Is this because police are much more likely to perceive any black man as a threat? Or are there simply more cases in which minority police officers end up in a situations where they're out of uniform and holding a gun? I, for one, was surprised to see the issue isn't so, well, black and white.


Marc said...

Is it just me, or does the article on Breitkopf not mention what he was doing that caused the transit officer that shot him to believe he was a threat? Sounds to me like they just opened fire on the guy because he was holding a gun. To me, that seems negligent.

Anonymous said...

It is also obvious that the media is not sensationalizing this story nearly as much as the tragic Omar Edwards case.

Johnny Law said...

Maybe you should drop some of that white guilt that is causing you to jump to conclusions?

Cleanville Tziabatz said...

He must have been shot pretty far away from the civilian because usually in these cases the civilian grabbed the one policeman's gun away and shot the other policeman. That is usually believable it helps with morale. Doug Zerby (white guy) is probably laughing in Heaven with Erik Scott (white guy).

Anonymous said...

A white guy in a goatee comes to the scene of the recent shooting of an insane white satanist, driving a regular-looking car. He gets out, wearing plainclothes, carring a high-powered rifle. A cop at the scene of the shooting, still jittery from the encounter with the crazy satanist, shoots this plainclothes goateed guy with the assault rifle. Tragic. Makes sense.
Oh, and Cleanvile is the nation's premier consumer of aluminum foil hats.

Anonymous said...

Your analysis should consider whether the black male cops shot in cases of mistaken identity were shot in neighborhoods where the overwhelming majority of shootings against cops and other innocent parties were committed by black males.

This would make sense, and pretty much settle the matter, though not solve the problem. If you as a cop spend your police career seeing black men shoot people, cops and civilians alike, then you are more likely to be made very nervous by a black man in your precinct dressed in plainclothes, who you don't recognize, coming at you with a gun in his hand. Is this unfair? Unreasonable? In the moment of decision, when your life is on the line, how seriously are you expected to entertain the possibility that this man coming at you with the gun who you don't recognize could be a fellow cop?

There is plenty of blame to go around, but we only seem to want to level it on the cops who are put in these terrible situations. Consider that one of the ways a community could make it safer for their black officers would be for the black men in that community to shoot fewer people than they presently do.

The saddest part of it all is that everyone benefits tremendously by having plenty of black cops on a police force that polices black neighborhoods, but these brave men and women who answer the call must shoulder tremendous additional dangers just in showing up at a scene. They shouldher dangers, and exhibit courage, that a man like Cleanville can only dream of lucking into in his next life as one last shot at redemption.

College Cop said...

I am a black man and a uniformed campus police officer (one who regularily encounters municipal officers on calls that overlap, officers who don't know me from adam), this subject is of course particularily important to me.

Im my 13 years on the job (11 with the college, and before that 2 years with a small town PD) i've been involved in a handful of off duty incidents and it's always in the back of my mind that I need to be especially smart in how I do things, because the responding officers will be walking into an unknown situation. I've never had a problem, and I want to keep it that way lol.

On a somewhat related side note PCM, this study is something you might find interesting.


Anonymous said...

No disrespect to any officers reading this, I am confused though and have a question: Was the Transit Officer or Transit Police requested for assitance? And if not, how often does a Transit PO in NY (or wherever) respond to a County PO call or overlap? I would understand if it was "officer shot" etc and he was in the vicinity.....but in my judgment it seems the officer who fired made a decision to "kick some butt" before he had even arrived and based his decision on secondhand information.

Anonymous said...

The MTA Officer was posted at a train station only three blocks away from where the incidents occurred.

PCM said...

It's common for officers to respond to help other police nearby. You're all cops. It doesn't matter if your patch is different.

So it was good of the MTA cop to respond. Besides, probably not much was happening by the train tracks that day.

From what I heard, by the time Breitkopf was on scene, the suspect was already dead. There was no threat.

So no, it was not good for the MTA cop to shoot and kill another police officer without provocation. I suppose the MTA cop was scared by the big white man with a big gun.

I don't know. I wasn't there.

But you think it might have occurred to this man that this guy arriving on scene with a gun (mind you, a large gun) just might be a police officer.

I don't know. I wasn't there.

You think he might have ordered the "suspect" to drop his weapon and get on the ground before shooting and killing him.

I don't know.

I wasn't there.

The MTA cop made a terrible, tragic mistake. I have no idea why. But he killed an innocent man, a fellow police officer at that, and it's something he's going to have to live with every day for the rest of his life.

Cleanville Tziabatz said...

Breitkopf reportedly "exchanged pleasantries" with Nassau County officers across the street from the house, then said he was going to look around. MTA officer Glenn Gentile had also just arrived at the scene after hearing the call come in from the train station nearby. According to Carver and other sources, an unidentified retired NYPD cop who was milling around saw Breitkopf and yelled "gun!" The Post reports that one of the MTA cops tried to wrestle the rifle away and Gentile fired the fatal shot. Carver says they were trying to handcuff Breitkopf as he lay dying when "his hysterical partner" ran up and identified him.

Anonymous said...

Well that recounting is about as close as Cleanville will ever get to a life-and-death decision.