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.