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by Peter Moskos

May 3, 2017

"You Get the Police You Ask For"

Since I've been remiss at writing anything here recently, I'm going to link to a piece from Jim Glennon at Calibre Press:
[Baltimore] Mayor Pugh then thanked federal officials for their assistance in the arrest of a man who murdered a three-year-old in 2014.
...
The Mayor’s expectation that the FBI can assist in the day-to-day in Baltimore not only won’t happen, it can’t. The Feds, and I am not one to bash them, are great at what they do. But what they don’t do is don uniforms and walk a beat.

The Baltimore cops may be undermanned but that isn’t the reason for the surge in crime. They have been understaffed before. What’s different in the past two years? An absence of proactive policing. The surge in crime began immediately after the cops pulled back. Though no division of the elite political class, few criminologists, no mainstream media outlets, and no legal activist groups like the ACLU will openly acknowledge this.

Why? Because they are the ones who wanted proactive policing stopped in the first place.
...
The anti-police pundits blather on about how the violence isn’t as bad as in the early 1990s. They’ll yammer about how the crime surge is only in about 75 of the country’s counties. They’ll wax poetically about economic issues, past history, immigration, lack of trust between the police and the community, and then they will go back to their security-controlled TV studios and gated communities, sip chardonnay and chitchat about law enforcement ills with like-minded peers.

Meanwhile, real people are dying, and the FBI, the CIA, the DOJ, and the VIPs won’t be able to stop the carnage.
...
So politicians, pundits, etc., you got what you asked for. The question is: Did the citizens ask for it?

March 30, 2017

Not how I was trained

I'm curious what cops think about this police-involved shooting in Portland, Oregon:
Hearst, a seven-year bureau member who became a police officer after graduating from Multnomah University's bible college, said he never saw Hayes with a gun, but was trained not to wait to see one. [emphasis added]

"Because if I let him get his hands on his gun, he will be able to pull that gun out and shoot me or my coworkers before I'm able to react to it."
To be clear, this was an armed robber who was shot. But he didn't have a gun. (His replica gun was nearby.) The "trained not to wait to see one" rubs me the wrong way. Thoughts?

March 20, 2017

"A police officer’s view from street level"

San Francisco Sgt Adam Plantinga always had good insight on policing. A few years back I posting a bunch of excerpts from his book: 400 Things Cops Know.

Plantinga was interviewed recently in The Christian Century and addresses some tough issues. It's worth reading the whole interview, but in case you don't:
There’s a 90-10 rule in law enforcement: 90 percent of people are decent, 10 percent aren’t, and as a cop you deal with that 10 percent about 90 percent of the time.
...
All of this has a tendency to make you skeptical and disillusioned—to distort your worldview. It’s part of what’s known as compassion fatigue.... In its most damning strain, goodness starts to look something like weakness.
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What the police must strive for is equality under the law. If that isn’t happening, attention must be paid. But in some people’s minds, every time a white police officer has a negative encounter with a black suspect, racism is clearly afoot. To be sure, racism is threaded through every institution in our country, from mortgage lending to how kids are disciplined in school.
...
But if a police controversy is about race only because some people arbitrarily decided to make it about race, the damage that can be done is much more than simply the Boy Who Cried Wolf syndrome. Accusations of racism are incendiary.
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Some of these recent cases generate such a visceral reaction that they demand a response. The Walter Scott case in North Charleston, where the officer shot Scott while Scott was running away, looked to me like a straight-up assassination. The shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa bears all the trappings of an officer tragically overreacting to a perceived threat.
...
The governor of Minnesota was quick to say that if Philandro Castile had been white, he wouldn’t have been shot by police. I’m not sure how fair that is, but it seemed to resonate with a lot of people as true. But if Michael Brown were a large white man going after Wilson’s gun after slugging him in the face, would Wilson have just brushed it off as the misguided antics of a fellow Caucasian? That doesn’t strike me as plausible.
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Then there are the cases, and I believe they are rare, where a life is lost because officers didn’t know how to properly use the equipment on their duty belt or they panicked or they simply made an awful decision that they can never take back. There may not have been malice involved but the damage is done. Those officers’ cases should be decided in criminal court where they are entitled to the same due process as anyone else.
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And ask any street cop and she’ll tell you about a host of times she could have justifiably used deadly force but elected not to.

That’s why cops bristle when they see a protester screaming that the cops are indiscriminately murdering people as he holds up a sign that says “It Could Be My Son Next.” Good sir, if your son comes at the police with a knife or a gun, then yes, God help him, he could be next. Otherwise, your son has about as much chance of being murdered by the police as he has of dying while canoeing.

Anytime an officer fires his weapon, it should be subject to intense scrutiny. The police are to uphold the sanctity of life whenever possible and must justify every bullet we fire. But don’t overstate the problem.
...
You build trust in a lot of ways. It starts by getting out of your patrol car and talking with people. The neighborhood’s contact with you must be more than simply knowing you as the arresting officer. You’ve got to explain to folks why you’re doing what you’re doing. It doesn’t always work, but it’s still a worthy endeavor.

A prevailing police weakness is the habit of brushing off people’s questions, as well as an inability to seriously consider a point of view other than our own. The public might be wrong on some issues, or have unrealistic expectations of the department. But we have to listen to them.

March 3, 2017

"The corrupt and brutal ones always work together as if pulled by some magnetic force"

"The corrupt and brutal ones always work together as if pulled by some magnetic force." (Perhaps said by a Chicago cop, but I can neither cite nor verify.) I think the reason why might be as simple as the fact that nobody likes to be given the stink-eye by their colleagues. So you most people disapprove of what you do, you eventually find like-minded folk who appreciate your work ethic and style. In the police world, for the more aggressively inclined, this means a specialized unit that focuses on arrests for drugs (and guns and maybe vice). And then, in precious semi-isolation, you feed and build on the habits of those most similar to you.

I wrote about the federal indictment of seven Baltimore City police officers yesterday (the actual indictment is here) and said: "This is about bad apples. But it's not just about bad apples. There's the barrel that allows these apples to rot."

Who else is to blame? How do we prevent this from happening again? Who said, "Crime is up! Get me guns! And take all the overtime you need"? Who ignored complaints because the "numbers" were good?

I don't have the answers. But these are sincere questions. Because true organizational change best happens from within. Things sure didn't improve when innocent Baltimore cops were criminally charged after the death of Freddie Gray. And the solution sure won't be found in some faddish mandatory training course in implicit-bias or gender-based stereotypes. Bad reform does more than not help. It hurts: good cops work less; bad cops keep working.

Last year I spent a fair amount of time criticizing the DOJ's report on the Baltimore City Police Department. (And for good reason, as it was an anonymously written, horribly researched, per-ordained slam job designed to pave the legal way to a federal consent decree while absolving current political and police leaders of all accountability for the current mess Baltimore is in. These were the same ace "investigators" who went to Baltimore while this crap was going on and unearthed shocking secrets of poorly written arrest reports from 5 years ago.) But I also wrote this:
Mixed in with questionable methodology, intentions, and anecdotes, there's some of God's awful truth in this DOJ report. Yes, the department is a dysfunctional organization that keeps going only because of the dedication of rank-and-file who do their best, despite it all.
I tried to highlight what the report got right. I hoped things would get better, but I didn't think they would:
Maybe this DOB report will improve the department despite itself. Though I might be wrong, I doubt it. I suspect people will ignore [what's wrong with the organization] and just focus on eliminating discretionary proactive policing that saves lives. If policing has taught me nothing else, it's taught me that things can always get worse. Or, as has been said: "I have never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn't make it worse."
It did get worse.

I also wrote this about the DOJ report:
Accountability ends above the civil-service ranks. Why is that? Where is the leadership and accountability on high? Nobody blames the bosses -- the mayor and police commissioner in particular -- for the dysfunction of the department they control.
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You think cops like working with (the very small minority of really) bad cops? Hell, no. But the system has no way to get rid of them. So you make do. You have to.
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I defend most police officers because I've been there. ... I've had to work with cops I wouldn't trust as far as I can throw.

So fix it, dammit. Good cops want to, but they can't.
...
And then we get to a failed discipline process.

[From the DOJ Report:] The system has several key deficiencies.
...
It is clear that the Department has been unable to interrupt serious patterns of misconduct. Our investigation found that numerous officers had recurring patterns of misconduct that were not adequately addressed. Similarly, we note that, in the past five years, 25 BPD officers were separately sued four or more times for Fourth Amendment violations.


You might call that a red flag.
How much do you want to bet that one or more of the just-indicted officers are on that list? But did anybody do anything?

You know what might help: figure out who didn't do the wrong thing. What you have here is an inadvertent integrity sting. Now I know you're not supposed to get credit for doing what you're expected to do. But you might find something out from who (if anybody) in that squad didn't abuse overtime. Whose name didn't come up in a wire tap? Who entered the squad, had a look around, and left right away thinking, "maybe uniform patrol isn't so bad after all"? But that's not the way these things work.

[Update: According to Justin Fenton in the Sun these seven were the entire squad. Worth reading Fenton's whole article. As to spending your career "risking your life" to protect others as a defense, this clip from Scott and Bailey comes to mind.]

It's not that good cops cover for bad cops as much as they stay the fuck away from them. Why? Because if you know enough to rat somebody out, you're already in way too deep. And if you don't know enough, well, what are you supposed to do? Go to Internal Affairs and say, "I got a hunch"? You put on blinders to cover your ass. You hear rumors, and then you stay the hell away because when the shit hits the fan, you don't want to be anywhere near it. It's less Blue Wall of Silence than a Blue Cone of Silence.

And the solution, as is always the case, needs to focus on the wrongdoers rather than be collective punishment on the good cops, the majority. From my book, Cop in the Hood:
Some officers enter the police department corrupt. Others fall on their own free will. Still others may have an isolated instance of corruption in an otherwise honest career. But there is no natural force pulling officers from a free cup of coffee toward shaking down drug dealers. Police can omit superfluous facts from a police report without later perjuring themselves in court. Working unapproved security overtime does not lead to a life in the mob. Officers can take a cat nap at 4 a.m. and never abuse medical leave. There is no slope. If anything, corruption is more like a Slip 'N Slide. You can usually keep your footing, but it's the drugs that make everything so damn slippery.
As to overtime, from 15 year ago:
To control overtime pay, superiors also discourage late discretionary arrests. While a legitimate late arrest may result in a few extra hours of overtime pay, the sergeant signing the overtime slip is likely to ask details about the arrest to confirm the legitimacy before adding an extra hour or two and giving very explicit instructions to "go straight home."
This "rounding up" of overtime was pretty common. And I'll even defend it as one of the only carrots a boss has to reward somebody for doing a good job. Regardless, it is a far cry from what seems to have happened here.

March 1, 2017

Seven Baltimore cops indicted

The Feds arrested seven Baltimore City cops today. I don't know all the details yet, but the robbery charges seem major. "Robberies while wearing a police uniform," I just heard. But you know what? Even without knowing the details I can go out on a very short limb and predict a few things. Why? Because it's always the same. And that's what makes it so frustrating. It's like we never learn.

Articles in the Wall Street Journal and the Baltimore Sun. And an unrelated scandal in Chicago. Though I will read these stories thoroughly. It bothers me that I don't have to. Some things are always the same. Always:
• Drugs. Always drugs. I'm not one for "root causes" theories in the abstract, but if you want to end police corruption, you've got to end drug prohibition. That's it. Until then, this will happen. This only question is when, where, and how often. The drug game is dirty. And it is a game with arbitrary rules. It taints all involved, even the honest cops.

• A specialized unit, removed from the generally non-corrupt culture of most police officers.

• A selective unit, in that people don't just get assigned there. Officers need to self-select. And the more aggressive cowboys do. And this aggressive hot-headed police sub-culture can feed on itself. Here's something you may not know: most officers have no desire to work with those cops. Why? Because most cops don't like they way they operate. Do cops know they're dirty? No. But they certainly suspect things aren't kosher. So the good cops stay away. You stay away because there's guilt by association in the police department, and when the shit hits the fan, and it always does, you don't want to find yourself in the jackpot.

• Red flags galore. Let me guess, the officers involved had tons of overtime (this seems to be one of the charges). Too much legal (or illegal) overtime is a red flag. But usually what now happens is the department cracks down on all overtime. Collective punishment, in essence. And that will only piss off the honest cops who are trying to do their job.

I bet a few of these cops are "highly decorated." Yes, too many awards is a flag.

I'm also going to guess there were a lot of complaints against these officers over the years. Now of course if you do aggressive work you'll get more complaints than some lazy hump who never gets out of their car. And you need to be careful not to see every complaint as legit, because most are BS. But still, when you get a dozen complaints -- use of force, discourtesy, the whole nine yards -- in a year or two? I think of the line from the Wire:

"...which for Herc will make an even four in the last two years."

"None sustained."

"But all of them true."

On the flip side, you can't treat every complaint as a career hold. That's how you get the maxim, "If you don't work you can't get in trouble." Flags aren't guilt. That's why they call them "flags." You notice them. You investigate. And maybe there's nothing to them. But sometimes there is. Somebody up top needs to notice these flags. And somebody with authority, you know, a "leader," needs to put their neck on the line and take action.

• High "productivity." You want guns and drugs and cash on the table? You reward officers for arrests? Then you get this. (Not always, mind you. Not immediately. Not all officers. But yes, eventually it is inevitable). It's not easy to balance "productivity" on one hand with "laziness" on the other. But I'm telling you, there's a huge middle ground into which fall 80 percent of cops.

• Bad supervision. The sergeant got arrested, and this implies the squad was rotten to its core. So, I can't help but wonder, who was the Lieutenant? Go on up the chain of command, for a change. Not just to punish and blame, but to inquire, reform, and figure out how this happened. Did the LT close his or her eyes because of pressure from higher up? I don't know. Where exactly was the communication breakdown? Because this is about bad apples. But it's not just about bad apples. There's the barrel that allows these apples to rot.

The military-like chain-of-command does nothing more efficiently than suppress open communication. In a police department, it's too easy to put on blinders and not know what is happening around you. In fact, you'd be a fool to do otherwise. This is not the same as a "blue wall of silence," mind you. But it is a problem. But even if those higher up don't know about the crimes happening under them, it's still a failure of leadership.
Anyway, I'm just writing about scandals in general. But if these facts are true in this case -- and I bet they are -- isn't that, as they say in the police world, a clue?

February 27, 2017

Milwaukee Chief Flynn: "We can predict who's going to get shot. We do. If we could only predict where and when, we'd be doing a great job. We can't do that."

[See my previous post on Ed Flynn.]

Flynn isn't new at this.

A few years back, Flynn was answering questions about a controversial police-involved shooting. At a community meeting, some criticized him for being "disrespectful," because he was on his phone. His response is well worth watching.

The cop involved in that shooting was later fired. Officers voted Flynn a nearly unanimous vote of no-confidence. Like I said, he gets it from all sides. He must be doing something right.

But crime is up in Milwaukee, and here he is talking about police backing off (at 7:16).



Later is that same interview he talks about deadly violence, and it's worth quoting at length (at 8:28):
We need to focus on the fact that it's a finite group of people. There aren't ten-thousand run-amok criminals out there. There's a finite number of people who have prior arrests for weapons possession or other violent crimes overwhelmingly shooting people like them.

And unfortunately the system doesn't act like a system.
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There are a lot of other variables out there, and so far most of them have escaped accountability.
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No matter where you start looking at the co-location of victimization in this city or any city like us, every single negative social indicator is in the same place where the dead bodies are. There are a lot of moving pieces to the problem. Many of our most violent offenders have been identified at early times in their careers by both the juvenile justice system or even by the schools. We know the statistics: how many children exposed to violence end up replicating the violence; how many children that were the victims child abuse or physical abuse will replicate that behavior later on; how many of our most violent offenders committed their first violence when they were young juveniles.

The data is there to focus resources on those with the most potential for violence. When we do network analysis we constantly find out that there's 20 percent of our homicide victims in any given year have been witnesses or involved in other shootings and homicides. We can predict who's going to get shot. We do. If we could only predict where and when, we'd be doing a great job. We can't do that. We can do a network analysis, we give you the names of ten people in the next 18 months, at least six of them will be shot. The challenge is there's no one to parse any of this information off to. Probation and parole are broken. Juvenile courts are broken. Nobody visits these folks at home except the police.

So there are challenges out there. They are not simplistic. There are things that need to be done on the front end with young children that will pay dividends in years, and they need to start now. Same token, there's more than most be done with young offenders. I'm not saying they all need to go to jail. But if they get neither services nor sanctions, why should their immature brains think something is going to happen to them when they turn 18 or 19? Time and again we see it. We keep grinding out the data. Other actors have to start stepping up. It's going to cost money, but that's what we pay taxes for.
[Comments are open on my similarly themed previous post on Flynn.]

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn: "We've got to get beyond the finger pointing that does nothing except to depolice at risk communities"

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn is smarter than your average flatfoot. Generally considered a progressive in the police world, he's the type of chief who should at least be embraced by the political left. But Milwaukee is one of the latest police department to be sued by the ACLU for racially disparate policing. But Flynn refuses to de-police the city's most violent streets. For this, Flynn gets heat from all sides: Republican senators, the anti-police crowd, and conservative Sheriff David Clarke (the Milwaukee County Sheriff better known for his Trump-loving cowboy-hat wearing general buffoonery).

Most recently, Flynn didn't take kindly to lawsuits from the ACLU making him and his police department out to be the bad guys. This is worth watching. "Disparity is not the same as bias," Flynn says. That's an important point that needs to be said loud and clear. If not, we abandon those most at risk. Here's an edited six minutes of Flynn:



[The full version is here.]

Flynn understands the political equations. He frames the right questions. He give the right answers. And he can talk about "ellipses" of social problems, explicit and implicit biases, negative social indicators, evidence-based policing, and the history of racist policing in America. As my father always said, if you get criticized for all sides, you must be doing something right.

[my next post on Flynn]

February 23, 2017

Reducing Crime: the White House has to be more than a pulpit for a bully

I wrote this article for the Washington Post:
President Trump declared in executive orders this month that the federal government would try to “reduce crime in America” and that the White House was opposed to violence against law enforcement officers.
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Crime reduction does not happen through fearmongering or federal fiat. And violence against police is illegal. But although the substance of these orders is near zero, their very existence reveals a shift in focus under the Trump administration.

Reducing crime is a fabulous wish, and a federal focus on crime reduction was curiously absent in the previous administration.
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Trump’s finger-pointing at immigrants — Mexicans and Muslims in particular — is particularly misguided, since these groups have little to do with crime or violence in America.
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Any profession, law enforcement included, appreciates kind words from up top. But the White House has to be more than a pulpit for a bully. Ultimately Trump will be judged by deeds, not words. And the president’s actions are not promising.
Click through for the whole piece.

February 12, 2017

Sometimes there are good guys and bad guys

A Baltimore police officer shot and killed an armed man who pointed a loaded gun at him.

You'd think this would be cut and dried. But no. It's Baltimore.



I mean really, if any police-involved shooting is clear cut. It's this one. Luckily for police, the cop had a body camera. Luckily it captures (barely) the key moment. Deal, a known violent offender, raises his loaded gun to shoot the cop.

The cop, thank God, is quicker on the draw. Deal is shot and killed. And that's where this story should end.

But no, not in Baltimore, where officers are often criticized for doing the right thing.

Commissioner Davis received flack at a press conference defending the cop, in part because he called Deal a "bad guy." Why besmirch the dead? Because maybe some issues need to be presented without moral relativism. Because if you don't point out there's right and wrong here, people will fill in the void with an alternative facts. Also, you owe it to your officers to support them through tough times.

[Have you killed somebody? Me, neither. But friends of mine have. And it's not easy on them, no matter how justified and necessary the killing was. And it's more difficult if people are saying you made a bad choice, especially when you didn't.]

In this case the City Paper takes aim at the cops in really one of the most idiotic police-related articles I've ever read. I like the City Paper. I've been reading it (admittedly not regularly anymore) for almost 20 years.

According to the story, the reason you don't know about this shooting is because "national news is at a chaotic premium right now." Actually, no. First of all, you are reading about it cause it's in all the papers and on the TV news.

But what's reckless about the City Paper story goes beyond this shooting. You may not follow this as closely as I do, but indeed, many "reformers" do not want police to be proactive at all. The story in the City Paper criticizes police for being part of the system wherein Deal ends up being shot and killed.

Less proactive policing is the goal, the position of the DOJ report on the BPD. The DOJ asserts many things, which others may then take as Gospel because the DOJ said so. This is a real problem. The report says police shouldn't confront/chase/arrest active violent offenders, especially if their identity is known. After all, somebody may get hurt:
The need for the suspect’s immediate apprehension must be weighed against the risks to officers and the public caused by engaging in a foot pursuit. If officers know the identity of the suspect, his or her immediate apprehension is likely unnecessary without exigent circumstances. However, if circumstances require that the suspect be immediately apprehended, officers should contain the suspect and establish a perimeter rather than engaging in a foot pursuit, particularly if officers believe the suspect may be armed.
Let's talk this through.

Man armed with an illegal gun, so you set up a "perimeter." (Sounds cool!) How do you do that?

What if Deal simply turns the corner and goes in a home of a friend and closes the door. (Or worse a stranger's home.) Do you send in the militarized SWAT team? What if you didn't see which house. Do you start banging on all the doors? That's not really community policing. Or maybe, since you know who Deal is, you go back to the station and start filling out an arrest warrant. (Meanwhile, calls for service are backing up until the "perimeter" is called off.)

Or what if Deal puts his gun in his waistband and runs through a vacant building into the alley. Baltimore is not like New York, where blocks are often solid with buildings and there are no alleys. But let's say there happens to be four units at the ready (fat chance) to block off the street and sit in the rear alleys. Then what? Is a cop back there? What does she do? She was given a description of young black male, black hoodie, jeans. How does she know if it's Deal? Does she start stopping all young black males who "match the description"? And what if Deal runs from her? Do you set up a new "perimeter"?

And then what?

At some point police will have to confront Deal.

That's why we have police. Police confront "bad guys" so we don't have to. (Not to say Deal didn't have any redeeming qualities, it's just that I don't think they're particularly relevant in this incident.)

Perimeter or not, assuming Deal doesn't voluntarily put himself in handcuffs, you either chase, catch, and cuff Deal, or you police in such a manner where you do not cross his path. And if you do the latter, it would failure of the fundamental role of police in society. But when police do get the memo (or lawsuit) and police less proactively, crime goes up and people complain police aren't doing their job. Sigh.

I'd prefer to resolve the apprehension of an armed gunman here and now rather than have it play out for hours or days. Especially if I lived on that block. What message does it send it police let Deal walk away? Now that would be a real blow to police legitimacy.

If there is a story here, it's about the failure of society, and in particular Baltimore's criminal justice system that was unwilling or unable to keep Deal off the streets. I mean, how does one even manage to get arrested and released three times in one month? Not only to you have to be a horrible criminal, you have to be kind of bad at it. Even Mosby's often incompetent State's Attorney's office wanted Deal held without bail! From the Sun:
For the third time in a month, 18-year-old Curtis Deal had been arrested on gun or drug charges. Judge Nicole Taylor wanted to be sure the young man understood what was expected if she released him to wait for trial.

"You're not going out at night, you're not going to get food, you're not going to meet your girlfriend. You're in your house," Taylor told him at Monday's bail review hearing, raising her voice.

"I'm giving you an opportunity to go to school and not be in jail pending this trial. The curfew is 1 p.m., 7 days a week."

Deal said he understood. Taylor wished him luck.

The next day about 3 p.m., Deal was fatally shot by a Baltimore police detective
It's worth reading the whole article by Kevin Rector and Carrie Wells in the Sun. It's a fine piece of journalism.

"A Bird's Eye View of Civilians Killed by Police in 2015"

More on the article in Criminology & Public Policy by Nix, Campbell, Byers, and Alpert. My previous post pointed out that if you use 2016 data rather than 2015 data, their conclusions would totally change.

[Update: also see Nick Selby's take on this. And David Klinger's]

How do we get data on police-involved shootings?

Trick question. We don't! A few departments, like the NYPD, issue great annual reports on shots fired by police. But other than that, we don't know. We don't know how many people cops shoot. So at best we're left with those shot and killed by police. And that's probably less than half of those shot by police.

When academics call for "more study," it's usually a cliché. But the need here is real. We don't know how many Americans get shot police each year? Are you effing kidding me?!

Given that, there's nothing wrong with using the best data you have. And I'm partial to using the Washington Post data myself. But that doesn't mean the data are good. (By good I mean valid, in that they show what they claim to show.) (I also have a bias problem with their "ticking" counter, like last year's shootings numbers are still going up. No, dude, every time I click on 2016 data, it's going to go to 963. You're not actually compiling the data on the spot.)

1st question: Is the basic number of people shot and killing by police correct?

Answer: Probably. It's an unknown unknown, but we have a lot of reasons to think most killings are here.

2nd question: Is their coding correct.

Answer: Depends on what you want. For race, probably. For threat, probably not. The data might be "reliable" (you might get the same code if you did it again). But what does "threat" labeled "other" mean? And how is that different from "undetermined"?

Others have pointed out to me that reporters don't have the expertise to judge what experienced police officers are trained to see. There's a great deal of truth to that. But more importantly, is the Post categorization valid? We don't know.

Say somebody gets killed on the street. How does that data get to us?

Well, in the traditional manner -- going from the street to the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) -- usually somebody calls 911 cause a crime happened. Some young officer shows up and takes a report. This is a local form, for a local department, not at all coded to the standards requested by the UCR (Hispanic data is a key issue here). The cop writes a report that is collected by their sergeant toward the end of their shift. It well enough written, so it goes up to some supervisor and then to some police data consolidator and then, once a year to the FBI.

At each stage it might get "cleaned up" a bit, as needed. And then, 9 to 21 months after the incident occurred, it gets published in the UCR index or Part I (or II) crimes. I've actually been able to check individual incidents I handled, later, in the UCR data. It checked out. All the facts were basically correct.

But you only know what the UCR tells you, and it isn't much. Nevertheless the UCR is considered the "gold standard" of crime data. But it sure ain't perfect. And it's particularly bad when it comes to police-involved shootings. Mostly because most departments simply do not report data on those killed by police.

Because of that, after Michael Brown in Ferguson, the Washington Post (and to a worse extent the British Guardian) said "we're going to start counting." Good on them, because nobody else was. [As was pointed out to, and I should have mentioned, killedbypolice was doing it first.] They use whatever they can, which means google searches of news accounts, basically.

So a cops (or criminal) shoots somebody. Some local reporter (most likely) with a police scanner goes to the scene and files a report. People don't get killed by police that often. It bleeds, so it leads.

That reporter either does or does not do a good job. They gather some of the information that seems relevant. But since they weren't there, they don't really know happened. It's called an investigation. Who do you believe? The cops say the guy was armed; his family says he wasn't. Reporters file a story and then the Washington Post has to decide if the guy was armed. Usually (for good reason) they go with the cop's version. But what if the cop is lying? Isn't the crux of the matter? Even if it doesn't happen much, how would we know? Of course high-profile cases get more investigation.

Which system is better? Neither. Both. It depends. But no existing data gather system is universal, mandatory, or really gets to the context of the incident.

But then even more, there's the subjective recording of data.

Miscoding threat level

The Washington Post labels a threat as either "attack", "other," or "undetermined." That's an odd trichotomy. Police care if a shooting is "justified" or not (aka "good" or "bad"). Courts care if it was criminals or not. The public may care if it were "necessary" or not. These are all different standards. But how can tell 3rd hand if a shooting was "good"?

The article's authors equate "other" with non-attack. This is wrong.

Take Paul Alfred Eugene Johnson, who robbed a bank with replica guns.
He forced the bank employees into the vault at gunpoint, told them he would kill them if they called police, and stole cash, police said shortly after the robbery.
...
Surveillance images from both robberies show someone dressed in similar-looking white hooded sweatshirts and carrying guns in their left hands.
There was a crazy chase. Johnson got out of his car and officers opened fire. I wasn't there, but I'm willing to call this a justifiable shooting. The threat level in the data is coded as "other," but in the journal article this gets recoded to "non-attack"? Come on, now.

Kevin Allen charged at officers with a knife. Kaleb Alexander had a gun he wouldn't drop. Troy Francis chased his wife and roommate with a knife, and then charged at responding officers. Hashim Abdul-Rasheed, previously not guilty by reason of insanity in an attempted murder case, tried to stab a Columbus, Ohio, police officer and was then shot and killed. Markell Atikins was wanted for the death of a 1-year-old, and then threatened officers with a knife. Tyrone Holman threatened to kill officers with a rifle and a grenade. Joseph Tassinari told an officer he was armed (he was) and then reached for his waistband. Harrison Lambert threatened his father with a knife before officers responded.

What do all these cases have in common (along with mental illness in most of them)? They're all categorized as "other" in the threat department. I don't fault the Washington Post for how they categorize. They may not have proof of attack beyond and officer's (self-justifying) account. I wish they did better, but they do what they need to do. (And nobody is doing better.) I do fault others who then group all these "others" into "non-attack" (n = 212), implying the cops did wrong.

I'm more curious about the label of threat called by the Post: "undetermined" (n = 44). Many of the potentially worst shootings are in this category. And yet: "Cases involving an undetermined threat level were excluded from multivariate regression models." I'm not certain why. Couldn't you go one by one and look at them? Isn't that what researchers do? I looked at a few.

The Post says Robert Leon:
exchanged gunfire with police, stole another car at gunpoint and fled. was first accused of shooting at cops and then shooting himself.
This account seems simply to be not true. Further investigation may have revealed that Leon didn't have a gun and died from police bullets. I wasn't there. I don't know. But it sure seems like an odd one to me.

The "unarmed" issue

If you're looking for bad shootings, "unarmed" sure seems like a good place to start. But it's not enough. "Unarmed" is a flag, but it is no guarantee that a suspect isn't a lethal threat. Officers have and will be attacked and killed by "unarmed" suspects.

Some of these cases, like white officer Stephen Rankin killing unarmed black William Chapman, resulted in the officer's criminal conviction. The Washington Post codes Chapman as attacking the officer. The jury may not have thought so.

The problem here, one the researchers seemed to have, is that if you look at "unarmed" suspects and those categorized as "non-attack" (the ones that people are most concerned about) you don't have a large enough n (number of cases) to do statistical analysis.

In 2015, you'd be down to a grand total of 50 people shot and killed by cops. It's enough for an outrage of the week, but you can't do much data analysis with 50 cases. And if you were to use "undermined" rather than "other" as meaning "non-attack" (I think a better but still horribly flawed categorization) you'd be down to a total of 9 cases.

February 11, 2017

What a difference a year makes...

There's an article in Criminology & Public Policy by Justin Nix, Bradley Campbell, Edward Byers, and Geoffrey Alpert that has gotten some press: "A Bird's Eye View of Civilians Killed by Police in 2015: Further Evidence of Implicit Bias"
Although we could not determine whether officers were quicker or more likely to fire their weapon at minority suspects, we argue that if minorities were more likely to have not been attacking the police/other civilians, or [emphasis added*] more likely to have been unarmed, this would indicate the police exhibit implicit bias by falsely perceiving minorities to be a greater threat to their safety.
I replicated their data and got 93 "unarmed" suspects killed in 2015. (Replicating data should be a given, but often it is not. So kudos to the authors for this.) In 2015, 38 unarmed black men and 32 unarmed whites were shot and killed by police. If the distribution were proportional to all those shot and killed, one would expect 24 blacks and 46 whites killed. This is a statistically significant difference. From this, the authors conclude "Black civilians were more than twice as likely as White civilians to have been unarmed." Twice sounds big. The absolute number? Not so big. Still, if you're one of the 38 unarmed black men killed, it matters.

Here's armed versus "unarmed" by race (for whites and blacks), for 2015 [click both to "zoom" and "refine"]:



I also looked at "threat level." For 2015, I get what the authors get:



You can see that for the threat = "other" (Ie: non-attack, in theory), one would "expect" to find 49.9 blacks in that square (if race wasn't a factor). But in reality 63 blacks were killed. That's a big and statistically significant difference.

[I'm limiting the presentation of my analysis (as is my wont) to percentages, crosstabs, and univariate correlations. If one can't describe statistics to a lay-person, it all becomes too abstract. And a problem with doing advanced statistics is then most people don't understand what they mean (and that includes most academics). And so then the reader has to take the scribe at their word.]

[Also, I have serious non-trivial issues with categorizing "other" as "non-attack," but I'll leave that aside, until my next post. Also, for replication purposes, I too exclude "undetermined" threat level (n = 42), but I don't think one should. More on that in the next post.]

Here's where things get interesting! Unlike the authors, I can publish this in seconds and, for better and for worse, not wait for peer review (though corrections and comments are always welcome).

So with the click of a button on SPSS (a statistics program), I can include 2016 data and even 2017 data right up to February 8 (when I downloaded the data).

Here's what I get when I do their analysis on threat, but for 2016:



Compared to 2015, in 2016 the results are reversed. This is a big deal. There are fewer blacks in the "other" threat level than one would expect. And the results are equally statistically significant.

A similar things happens when one looks at armed and unarmed (again, I think this is too simplistic of a division, but that's what they use).

Here's armed versus unarmed by race, for 2016:



While the data isn't completely reversed, the differences in 2016 are minor enough (and the "n," the number of cases, small enough) that the racial disparity is no longer statistically significant.

What gives? Did the problem of racial disparity in police-involved killings disappear last year? Did it even reverse? I don't know. But replicating the 2015 study with 2016 data would lead to a very different conclusion.

Here are some other interesting tidbits.

• From 2015 to 2016, total shootings deaths by police went down from 990 to 963. Given the increase in homicide, I would have expected the number of police-involves shootings to go up (they are usually correlated). I suspect that the number went down because A) given the focus on the issue of police-involved shootings, cops are less likely to pull the trigger and B) the number of discretionary interactions between cops and criminals has decreased.

• From 2015 to 2016, killings of unarmed people dropped from 88 to 49. The drop was most pronounced among blacks (35 to 17).

• Twenty-five percent of those killed by police are known to have pretty major mental health issues. This is a Big Red Flag. No doubt the real number is even higher (undiagnosed mental health issues among the poor, or simply a family that doesn't want to tell a reporter about it). Implicit racial bias might (or might not) contribute to a dozen or so deaths. Mental health issues contribute to 250 a year! You want to reduce shootings? Provide mental care for people who need it.

• Seventy-eight percent of 2015 killings (This if from Nix et al.I haven't recoded the 2016 data) happened in the South and West (with 60 percent of the population). Again, if one wishes fewer people to be killed by police, best to focus where police kill a lot of people.

• We really need more data, not just on police involved killings, but on all police-involved shootings. A lot of people are shot and not killed. We know next to nothing about this. And we need to know the context of these shootings. How did they start? How many are initiated by a call for service rather than a police officer's discretion?

• We really need to be concerned about unintended consequences of policy decision. Perhaps a laser-like focus on police shootings and police misconduct combined with lawsuits against proactive policing really have ended the racial disparity in police-involved shootings. If so, that would be great. It's just as likely that a laser-like focus on police shootings and police misconduct combined with lawsuits against proactive policing have contributed to less proactive policing and an increase in homicide. (It's hard to argue one without the other, though people will try. Oh, they will try.) Eighteen fewer unarmed blacks were shot and killed by police in 2016 compared to 2015. Meanwhile, 2,000 more were murdered, most of them black (using the Brennan Center's estimate of a 13 percent increase in homicide).

It's not crazy to see some connection between these two variables: less proactive policing could [ie: does] mean fewer police-involved shootings and also more criminal shootings. Is this the best we can do? Is this the trade-off we want? Can one or should one talk about the value the lives in this way? I don't know. But since more people are dying (though fewer at the hands of police) these are things we need to be talking about.

• Also, the number of unarmed Asians killed by police since 2015: Zero (of 30 killed, total).

[* The use of "or" is interesting. The numbers are really low. Cops just don't shoot many unarmed unarmed attackers. You can't really do multivariate analysis on a few dozen cases. Given the number of people killed by police, you can't look at racial discrepancies (statistically) when the person killed is not-attacking cops and unarmed.]

[comments are (only) available on the next, related, post.]

February 5, 2017

The Curious Case of Poverty and Crime

When I'm charming people at a cocktail parties with talk of rising crime and the role of police, the good people I talk to, rather than even considering the possibility that police matter and post-Ferguson protests might matter (in a negative way), inevitably try and shift the discussion to greater social issues: poverty, racism, and inequality, the so called "root cause" of crime.

The "root causes" position has long annoyed me. I care about those poverty, racism, and inequality, but in terms of effective crime-preventing policing today, the "root causes" are nothing but a distraction. It's basically a defeatist way to say we can't lower crime until we fix society. I'm all for fixing society, but I'm not willing to hold my breath till it happens. Also, the idea that the only way to impact crime is to address structural issues is consistently and demonstrably false.

Last year poverty went down and murder went up. In 2008, the economy tanked, and criminals barely noticed. Between 1965 and 1975, poverty is the US was way down; violent crime way up. In the 1990s, during New York's great crime decline, the number of New Yorkers living in poverty increased 21 percent. Inflation adjusted household and family income declined. Unemployment approached 10 percent.

[A few academics buck the poverty-causes-crime trend (Orlando Patterson and Marcus Felson are two that jump to mind), but despite all the evidence to the contrary, "poverty causes crime" is still pretty much accepted as scripture.]

Anyway, cause I'm not much of a football fan (or Satan fan), I thought I'd graph poverty and homicide over time. And here's what you get:

[click to embiggen]

Those lines are almost flip visions of each other (Especially if one ignores the 1990s.) Turns out, at least since 1959, there an inverse correlation between poverty and homicide in the US. Homicide goes up when poverty decreases. Statically significant and everything. Well, that's awkward.

[Update: A commenter makes a very good point that I'm overstating any statistical significance because of the high poverty years up to 1995.]



Does this mean we shouldn't reduce poverty because homicide will go up? Of course not. (I often make fun of the "correlation doesn't equal causation" mantra -- because sometimes correlation does indicate causation, and correlation certainly doesn't eliminate possible causation -- but the "correlation doesn't equal causation" mantra is well worth repeating here.) I think homicide is far less linked to macro economics than, well, macro economists would have you believe.

But this fact remains: there is an inverse correlation between poverty and homicide. [Correction: Eh... maybe, maybe not. Probably not. See comments section.] The question then is to figure out how and why and through what intervening variables. I'll leave that for better statisticians than me to figure out. But let's assume, just for a moment, that this correlation isn't random. Why might this be so?

Hell, I don't know. But if I had to hazard a guess... I'd think that perhaps some of same good policies that help reduce poverty and suffering in our country might go along with a certain ideology that occasionally has its head up its ass when it comes to policing and crime. Conveniently this might also explain the 1990s, when both poverty and crime decreased. President Clinton and Vice President Gore managed to reduce poverty while still being firmly on the police side of the ideological divide. Broken Windows was working in NYC. Welfare was being ended as we knew it. And the Feds even coughed up a chunk of change for a few more cops, to boot.

February 4, 2017

"Ronnie Goldman has a brand new cane"

Good God, I haven't posted in a while. Well, I still get paid.

Here I am on Glenn Loury's Bloggingheads TV today, talking about the issues I discuss here.

Anyway, what to post about next? I don't want to be let the perfect post be the enemy of the good. This is hardly an important post, but I couldn't resist this story:
"Good Samaritan" beats unarmed black man senseless. Called a hero. Gets a lifetime bus pass.
A bus driver gets attacked for no reason. An old poor man with a cane beats the attacker senseless. Beats him so hard, in fact, he breaks his cane. No big thing. He just goes about his night. There's a small quest to find this "hero" so he can be feted in proper fashion. Turns out he wants a new cane cause he needs one but can't afford a new one. Welcome to America.

Despite the narrative on the TV news ("it's a story about a new friendship"), Goldman didn't hit the attacker thus "allowing the bus driver to escape." The first smite came after the driver gets away. And the subsequent ten, too. But then perhaps Ronnie was just making sure the attacker couldn't get up and hurt him. Fair enough.

The attacker was arrested. But thank God this "hero" is not a cop, or white. Cause if he were either, there would be protests. But would they be justified? A cop would be fired and charged with assault. I wouldn't defend a cop doing this. Despite the feel-good narrative, I can't help but notice Goldman beat the crap out of an "unarmed man." But Goldman isn't a cop. But when is it OK to beat up a man attacking a (female) bus driver? I'm on the justice-is-served side of the equation.

What's the lesson to cops? Or citizens? I think he should just let him go with a wink and a nod. And perhaps a verbal warning. The bus company has no problem with street justice. They game Goldman a lifetime bus pass. And for his efforts, Goldman got two new canes. Good. He's salt of the earth. And needs a cane. One was wood and the other metal. He liked the metal one more. Why?:
In case I have to put in on somebody again, I won't have to put in on too bad. You know, two or three hits with this, and you'll act right.
...
I was glad I was there.
...
If I'm on the bus and it happens again, I'm gonna do the same thang."
I believe him. And this is why people don't like riding the bus.