Are America’s Police Getting an Unfair Rap?

Criminologists and police officers at a Washington DC panel contend that policing in the U.S. is improving, despite a series of well-publicized shootings of unarmed citizens.

Ever since the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement, police around the nation have found themselves consistently under fire for reasons ranging from alleged racism to unjustified use of force.

Are the critics making a fair assessment? Scholars who study policing, and some current and former practitioners, don’t think so, judging from panel discussions on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

The talks were held at a new outpost in the nation’s capital opened by Arizona State University, whose criminology faculty is very active in research on policing.

The basic message of several panelists was that, taking the long view, policing in the U.S. has improved in recent years—not worsened—despite several well-publicized cases in which officers shot unarmed citizens without good reason.

In a discussion of efforts by officers to de-escalate potentially violent situations with crime suspects and others, the experts agreed that the technique is being embraced by more and more officers on the streets.

William Terrill, a policing expert on the Arizona State faculty, said that about three-fourths of officers successfully practiced de-escalation as far back as the 1990s.

The problem, Terrill said, is that what he described as a small group of officers believes that escalating a conflict can help bring it to a resolution because the officer can “maintain the edge… stay in control.” It is difficult to change police culture entirely in a short period, he said.

In police hiring today, applicants are told that most of their time probably will be devoted to “social work, not law enforcement,” Terrill commented. “We ask officers to do a lot, and not everyone is up to it.”

Edward Flynn

Edward Flynn. Photo via YouTube

Edward Flynn, who recently retired as police chief in Milwaukee, said that policing has become much more responsive to community concerns since two landmark reports that recently marked their 50th anniversary.

They were issued by panels appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s on criminal justice and on race and poverty issues (the “Kerner Commission.”)

In Flynn’s view, as government agencies across the board try to deal with problems in high-poverty areas, “the police are uniquely singled out for negative attention” because it is their job to enforce the law.

Taking part in a panel on the use of data in evaluating the police, Flynn lamented that “stories beat data,” alluding to “critical incidents” in which officers are accused of wrongdoing. Such episodes “become the reality,” he said.

Another discussion at the Arizona State gathering involved the increasing attention in law enforcement circles to “procedural justice,” the idea that police will get better results and engender more community trust if they are perceived as treating the public fairly.

Panelists agreed that police in many areas are making limited progress in this area because officers are not seen as being treated fairly in their own organizations.

If the public sees that promotions in police departments are decided on a political basis rather than on grounds of competence, for example, they may not be likely to respect officers in street encounters.

Milwaukee’s Flynn noted that demands of police unions sometimes fly in the face of police administrators’ being able to hold officers accountable for mistakes.

In a discussion of officers’ wearing cameras to record interactions with suspects and the public, panelists agreed that studies have disagreed on how useful the cameras are.

In some places, use-of-force incidents by officers and complaints from the public have dropped as more officers wear cameras, and many are more careful about how they go about their work. In other areas, particularly a recent study of Washington, D.C., police, little change has been noted resulting from the cameras, said Arizona State’s Michael White, who has studied camera use for several years.

Overall, public trust in police may be rebounding after it fell in the aftermath of Ferguson’s Michael Brown shooting, said Arizona State criminologist Rick Trinkner.

Trinkner cited a Gallup survey last year finding that “overall confidence in the police has risen slightly in the past two years, with 57 percent of Americans now saying they have ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in law enforcement.”

Gallup said that level matched the overall average over 25 years.

Wednesday’s panels were moderated by Nancy La Vigne of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center.


Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.


Police Fatally Shot Nearly 1,000 People in U.S. Last Year

Police fatally shot 987 people last year, two dozen more than they killed in 2016, according to a Washington Post database project that tracks the fatal shootings. Since 2015, the Post has logged the details of 2,945 shooting deaths.

For the third year in a row, police nationwide shot and killed nearly 1,000 people, which the Washington Post calls “a grim annual tally that has persisted despite widespread public scrutiny of officers’ use of fatal force.” Police fatally shot 987 people last year, or two dozen more than they killed in 2016, found a Post database project that tracks the fatal shootings.

Since 2015, The Post has logged the details of 2,945 shooting deaths, culled from local news coverage, public records and social-media reports. While many of the year-to-year patterns are consistent, the number of unarmed black males killed in 2017 declined from two years ago. Last year, police killed 19, a figure tracking closely the 17 killed in 2016. In 2015, police shot and killed 36 unarmed black males.

Some experts believe the tally may correspond to the number of times police encounter people, an outcome of statistical probability. Others are exploring whether the number tracks with overall violence in U.S. society. “The numbers indicate that this is not a trend, but a robust measure of these shootings,” said criminologist Geoff Alpert of the the University of South Carolina. “We now have information on almost 3,000 shootings, and we can start looking to provide the public with a better understanding of fatal officer-involved shootings.”

Scrutiny of shootings by police began after the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014. The attention may have helped police reduce the number of unarmed people shot and killed each year. Officers fatally shot 94 unarmed people in 2015, but that number has been lower in the past two years, with 51 killed in 2016 and 68 in 2017. Black males continue to be shot at disproportionately high rates.


Investigating the Homicide Bump: Federal Report

A federal report released Wednesday examines FBI crime data in big cities, considering two possible explanations for the “sudden and unforeseen” spike in homicides nationwide.

A federal report released Wednesday examines FBI crime data in big cities, considering two possible explanations for the “sudden and unforeseen” spike in homicides nationwide.

According to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) study, which focuses on cities with a population of 250,000 or more, preliminary evidence suggests that expansions in illegal drug markets have driven the considerable increase of homicide rates among whites. In 2015 and 2016, drug-related homicides increased to a greater extent than other types of homicide.

The second hypothesis authors consider is the so-called Furguson effect, which resulted in “de-policing, compromised police legitimacy, or both.”

NIJ stipulates that “current evidence that links de-policing to the homicide rise is mixed, at best,” and that it remains an “open research question”– since arrests-offense ratios and arrest clearance rates had been declining for years, as were homicide rates, before the recent spike.

Neither explanation is meant to stand alone; in particular, growing tensions between African Americans and police do not account for the abrupt increase in homicides among whites beginning in 2013.

A look at the numbers

Nationally, 2014-2015 saw the largest percentage rise in the homicide rate since 1968, according FBI data; an increase of 11.4% over the previous year, or from 4.4 to 4.9 homicides per 100,000 people.

National homicide rates continued to increase by 8.2% in 2015-2016, and 10.8% in big cities. In 2015, Cleveland and Nashville saw the biggest absolute homicide increases, while Austin and Chicago topped the chart in 2016.

Only two cities bucked this upward trend: Miami and Tuscon both experienced a decline in homicides over the two-year period.

Despite the recent incline, the homicide rate in 2016 was still 35.4% lower than it was in 1995. “Even at the elevated rates of increase in 2015 and 2016,” note the authors, “it would take about five more years for the U.S. national and big city homicide rates to return to the levels of the early 1990s.”

‘Sudden and unforeseen’

In the search for external ‘shocks’  that could explain the rapid and unexpected nature of the recent homicide increase, NIJ finds two plausible candidates, both of which have parallels in contemporary U.S. history: the opioid epidemic, echoing the crack-driven homicide escalation of the 1980s–and anger over police brutality and fatal use-of-force, such as precipitated the civil unrest of the 1960s (and corresponding “crisis of institutional legitimacy,” according to some analysts).

Researchers need better data to measure the affects of the opioid crisis, according to the report. Drug arrests are not a reliable indicator, since they are “a product of both police
enforcement and criminal conduct,” and since “policymakers and law enforcement officials alike have viewed the heroin and synthetic opioid epidemic as more of a public health than a criminal justice problem.”

There is some data to suggest a link between heroin and increased homicides: arrests for heroin or cocaine were falling between 2010 and 2013, but heroin use was on the rise. Arrests then rose in 2014 and 2015, coinciding with the accelerating homicide rate.

Data also needs to be disaggregated by race, in order to “determine whether, as expected, whites have entered local drug markets in greater numbers over time as both buyers and sellers.”

Police activity and community “reservoir of discontent”

When considering the influence on homicide rates of police enforcement, legitimacy, and community alienation, reliable indicators are also hard to chase down.

Arrest rates not only measure crime, but police activity, as noted above. “Arrests fell in Baltimore in 2015 after the Freddie Gray incident, and in Chicago in 2016 after the delayed release of a video of a controversial police shooting there.” The reduction in arrests was then followed by an increase of homicide in both cities.

However, researchers say that it “remains to be seen whether comparable decreases in arrests preceded increases in homicide elsewhere.” The link between homicide and arrests/de-policing needs to be further examined at the neighborhood level, since homicide rates vary substantially across neighborhoods.

Calculating police legitimacy and community alienation is “onerous,” and largely measured through opinion surveys– “for the time being,” say the authors, “it appears that strategic case studies and one- or two-time snapshot surveys will have to suffice.”

There are two empirical indicators that can be measured, however, if police departments are willing to release the data: calls for police service, and complaints against the police.

“If the community alienation hypothesis is correct, investigators should expect to observe a reduction in calls for service and an increase in complaints in cities where controversial use-of-force incidents and outbreaks of community unrest have occurred, particularly in African-American communities. Increases in homicide…should be greater in those cities and communities than in others.”

The dark figure of homicide

Finally, and critically, “it is important not to overstate the precision of these figures,”say researchers. “Like all UCR crime data, they are based on the classification of homicide events by local law enforcement agencies, and crime classification criteria and procedures can differ across agencies or within the same agency over time.”

Homicides with unknown circumstances are omitted from the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Report– and “the circumstances of fully 39.9 percent of homicides were unknown to law enforcement officials in 2015.”

To locate many of the indicators that researchers have identified, researchers will have to go beyond FBI data and work directly with public health and police sources, say authors of the report.


Ferguson Drops Charges Against Man Held at Gunpoint

The city dismissed the five-year-old case against Fred Watson, who was featured in a Justice Department report that criticized the city for targeting African Americans and making unconstitutional arrests.

Fred Watson of Ferguson, Mo., won a small victory in a long battle, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. More than five years have passed since the Navy veteran was held at gunpoint by a Ferguson police officer before being arrested, having his car towed and being jailed.

More than two years have passed since Watson was featured, without being named, in a Justice Department report that blasted police in Ferguson for targeting African Americans, making unconstitutional stops and arrests, and treating the city’s police and court system like an ATM. On Monday, all nine municipal charges against Watson were dropped.

The Ferguson prosecutor did not notify Watson or his lawyers with the nonprofit ArchCity Defenders law firm, and offered no explanation. Prosecutor Lee Clayton Goodman told the Post-Dispatch that Watson’s case fell within the guidelines set out in Ferguson’s consent decree with the Justice Department, in which the city agreed to dismiss certain municipal court cases.

After being charged, Watson lost his security clearance, then his six-figure job with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The $58,000 he had saved for his first two years of law school has been spent on food and other daily expenses. Watson said he has battled depression and is broke. He has been living out of storage units and sleeping in basements and the back seat of his car. Still pending is a federal lawsuit Watson filed against Officer Eddie Boyd III and Ferguson.


Brown Family Was Paid $1.5 Million in Ferguson Settlement

The amount was concealed when the settlement was announced this week. The city attorney was obliged to disclose the figure in response to an open records request by journalists.

Apollo Carey, the city attorney in Ferguson, Mo., says the city’s insurance company paid $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of Michael Brown, reports the Associated Press. Carey disclosed the amount Friday in in response to an open records request. The settlement of the federal lawsuit was announced Tuesday, but financial details were not released.

Brown was 18, black and unarmed when he was fatally shot by white officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014. Wilson was cleared of wrongdoing and resigned in November 2014. Michael Brown Sr. and Lezley McSpadden sued the city, former Police Chief Tom Jackson and Wilson in 2015. They cited a police culture hostile to black residents and claimed Wilson used excessive force.


FBI Report Cites Trend of ‘De-Policing’ by Besieged Cops

The confidential report from April 2016 concluded, “Law enforcement officials believe that defiance and hostility displayed by assailants toward law enforcement appears to be the new norm.”

A confidential FBI study concluded that U.S. law enforcement officers are “de-policing” amid concerns that anti-police defiance fueled in part by movements like Black Lives Matter has become the “new norm,” reports the Washington Times. “Departments — and individual officers — have increasingly made the decision to stop engaging in proactive policing,” said the April 2016 report by the FBI Office of Partner Engagement.

The report, “Assailant Study — Mindsets and Behaviors,” said the social-justice movement sparked by the 2014 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by an officer in Ferguson, Mo., “made it socially acceptable to challenge and discredit the actions of law enforcement.” The report said, “Nearly every police official interviewed agreed that for the first time, law enforcement not only felt that their national political leaders [publicly] stood against them, but also that the politicians’ words and actions signified that disrespect to law enforcement was acceptable in the aftermath of the Brown shooting.” As a result, “Law enforcement officials believe that defiance and hostility displayed by assailants toward law enforcement appears to be the new norm.”


Criminologist Debunks Spike in Police Killings Since Ferguson

It is “very misleading” for the news media to assert that police slayings of civilians in the U.S. are up since the Michael Brown case in 2014 in Ferguson, Bradley Campbell tells the American Society of Criminology. The average number of police killings nationwide has been steady at about 19 per week before and after Brown’s death.

Despite a widespread impression that the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson marked the beginning of a significant increase in fatal killings of U.S. civilians by police officers, there is no proof of such a rise, says criminologist Bradley Campbell. The average number of such shootings around the nation has been steady at about 19 per week since at least May 2013–more than a year before the Ferguson case–through last year, the University of Louisville’s Campbell told the American Society of Criminology Wednesday. The society is holding its annual meeting in New Orleans this week. Campbell acknowledged that data on killings by police are incomplete, noting that compilations by the Washington Post and the Guardian have outpaced those by the federal government. The FBI has announced plans to upgrade the federal database of such incidents.

Campbell relied partly on the website to compile comparative data going back well before the Brown case. Although the Washington Post has reported some short-term rises in police killings, Campbell said a longer look shows that the total fluctuates from month to month. He criticized journalists for asserting an upward trend based on data from very brief periods, calling it “simplistic” and “very misleading.” Campbell also said there is no evidence of a “Ferguson effect” on police shooting totals. That is the label put on a supposed trend that officers are taking more shots at people because criminals are now frequently defying law enforcement. Campbell also expressed doubts about an alternate hypothesis: that many police officers have become less aggressive after intense scrutiny of the Ferguson shooting and others.


Mixed Report on Ferguson Reforms: 76 Tasks to Do

The Justice Department praises the selection of team monitoring reforms after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. The lawyer for Ferguson tells federal judge “a lot still needs to be done.”

Ferguson has made progress on reforms prompted by the protests after the 2014 death of Michael Brown, but still has a lot of work to do to keep up with dozens of tasks mandated by a consent decree with the Justice Department, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. “A lot’s been done. A lot still needs to be done,” summarized Jared Hasten, a lawyer for Ferguson. Hasten told U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry yesterday that city officials and employees have been told “what is expected of them.” The team monitoring progress on the compliance will have a day of meetings today in Ferguson.

Christy Lopez of DOJ praised the selection of the monitoring team, telling Perry that it went “much better” in Ferguson than in some cities. She said that the public was highly engaged in the process and team members are highly respected in their fields. Lopez said she has concerns about the city’s work so far. She said Ferguson needs to hire a full-time compliance coordinator to focus on the process, and should ensure that new policies actually comply with the consent decree before they are implemented. Lopez said 76 items are supposed to be completed and verified by an upcoming 180-day deadline. Clark Kent Ervin, leader of the monitoring team called its work “enormously important” and said the team would evaluate and audit the city’s progress, not just verify the implementation of the decree on paper.



In Search of Profits: The Outsourced Prosecutor

Many cash-strapped jurisdictions around the U.S. have established a competitive bidding process for prosecutions. That’s creating a challenge to the fair administration of justice around the U.S., says a Brigham Young University study.

Ferguson Solidarity protest in DC, 2012. Photo by Johnny Silvercloud via Flickr

Ferguson Solidarity protest in DC, 2012. Photo by Johnny Silvercloud via Flickr

A month after the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American youth, by a Ferguson, MO police officer,  the Department of Justice launched an investigation that exposed  the questionable  law enforcement practices of the Ferguson Police Department, highlighting their focus on generating revenue for the city.

However, according to a report by Maybell Romero of J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University, this intense scrutiny of Ferguson’s profit-based approach to law enforcement largely ignored the role of Ferguson’s then city prosecutor, Stephanie Karr in these practices.

The study noted that prosecutors like Stephanie Karr are hired “through a competitive bidding process where cost-savings, fine generation, and outbidding competitors are prioritized over other evaluative concerns, submitting a bid in response to a request for proposal (RFP) issued by the jurisdiction in question.”  Such outsourcing sets a dangerous precedent, says the study, entitled, Profit Driven Prosecution and the Competitive Bidding Process, because it focuses a prosecutor’s attention on efficiency and revenue generation, rather than the pursuit of justice.

“The use of outsourced prosecution services, particularly those hired through an RFP/competitive [process] is dangerous, subjecting the hired prosecutors to much of the same political pressure as elected officials while also generating unusual and outsized pressures to prioritize budgets and fine/fee generation,” says the study.

The risks are further precipitated by an apparent lack of public understanding of how criminal justice works on a local—rather than federal or state government—level.

“Even in the recent years during which criminal justice system reform has been discussed by both political liberals and conservatives alike, there is still a general belief that wrongfully prevails—that all prosecutors are elected,” says the study.

In fact, on the local level, prosecutors aren’t elected at all.

In order to help the reader understand the particular risks inherent to hiring prosecutors through RFPs, the study is divided into three major sections.

  • A general perspective showing how the American prosecutor’s role has evolved, including the use of different methods of compensation.
  • An overview of prosecution outsourcing, examining the challenges faced by local governments that encourage privatization as a means of saving costs and generating revenue.
  • An examination of the incentives and disincentives on the part of prosecutors, local governments, mayors, and executives to concern themselves with bottom lines rather than providing services focused on serving justice to the public.

The study, citing examples from Wyoming, Minnesota and Kansas, among others, concludes that further examination of the pitfalls of employing RFPs for prosection in many smaller jurisdictions around the country is necessary if the prospective dangers are to be averted.

It goes on to warn that while the problems that arise from this process may seem far removed from those living in large cities, the recent national demand for a devolution of governmental responsibilities to local governments could  spread the practice more widely.







How to Make Black Lives Matter

Five months before Michael Brown’s death, African-American students at his St. Louis high school gave one educator a striking lesson in the importance of empowering role models. The national debate since then continues to miss the point.

Photo by Gerry Lauzon via FlickR

Photo by Gerry Lauzon via FlickR


In March 2014, I received an urgent e-mail request from a high school teacher in St. Louis, Mo.,  to visit her international literatures course. She wanted me to address a class of juniors and seniors that was comprised mostly of black male students.

“They don’t believe that they have futures,” Ms. R. wrote. Her tone in the message was neither incredulous nor dismissive. Rather, her language exuded a complex modulation of compassion, care and, most of all, concern.

Her sentiments echoed those of Maya, then a rising senior in my university “Politics of Education” course the previous fall.

I recalled the pointed pushback that Maya gave me in her class when I had protested the notion that black youth were hopeless. Her challenge foreshadowed Ms. R.’s invitation.

“But they are worried,” Maya firmly responded, while looking me squarely in my eyes from across the seminar room.

I thought about it. Maya spoke to “what is,” while I was wedded to “what should be.” Her words also suggested that young people nowadays did not need “role models” in their lives. Rather, they would stand to benefit from those of us with resources to listen to them, and to employ our assets in accord with their interests.

My visit to Normandy High School a few weeks later was uplifting, even rejuvenating, for a number of reasons.

First, I was mesmerized by the beauty of the school’s campus; it is nothing short of majestic. At the same time, I was somewhat puzzled by the St. Louis region’s grand investment in the school’s largely black student body, especially given the metropolitan’s peculiar racial past and present.

It then occurred to me: This school was not built for these students, but for the now out-migrated population of white students whose families had left their black neighbors largely red-lined and sequestered.

This observation notwithstanding, the pervasive joy and enthusiasm that I observed throughout my winding tour across the campus en route to Ms. R.’s class reminded me of the disconnect between the lived realities of these students and the popular representations of the same via sound bytes and video clips perpetrated by the mainstream news media.

And, as anticipated by my 30 years of working in schools that were similar to those that I had attended as a child and adolescent—both segregated and sequestered all-black schools and desegregated and diverse schools in the Bay Area of northern California—in Ms. R.’s class, I was met, at once, with words that evinced a sense of joyful intellectualism and curiosity, along with others tempered by informed doubt and suspicion.

The former views were shaped by the students’ implicit embrace of their self-evident capacities; the latter, by their lived experiences as young people who happened to be black, mixed, white, male, female who hailed from various working-class families After a period of a richly—and playfully—informed discussion, I posed a question to the class: “How does one ‘make a way out of no way’ and enjoy the quality of life that he or she desires?”

Answers ensued: “You’ve got to go along to get along”; “You’ve got to play the game”; “You’ve got to pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” to which class members individually responded, both agreeing and disagreeing with different measures.

We were at an impasse when a student, a 12th-grade African American, made the following observation: “We need a cast of characters.”  He  went on to explain that young black people, both back in the day and in the “here and now,” not only survived but flourished by having diverse people in their lives, some emotionally close and others, somewhat removed, who worked in their best interests.

These were people who provided affirmation, pushback, insight, protection, opportunities and other essentials  necessary to assist black youth (especially) to combat the oppressive forces they encounter that too often derail them. These would be folks of different ages and backgrounds who believe in these students and tacitly understand that their lives matter in a world where they do not appear to.

Five months before Michael Brown died at the hands of a police bullet, he was a senior at Normandy High School. Although he was not in Ms. R’s class when I visited, I have wondered since whether he might have been one of those who were similarly pessimistic about their futures. Certainly, in retrospect, the tragedy of this young man seemed to anticipate the mobilization of a youth-led diverse cast of characters that we’ve come to know as “Black Lives Matter .”

Yet, as has been the case with similar casts in the recent and remote past, today’s cast has been met with disapproval and fear-mongering by the political and media elites—an attitude further reinforced by black civic and faith-based leaders whose television and Internet performances seek to persuade black children, youth and adults to comply with their intransigent racialized perspectives..

For example, some national politicians and pundits derisively compare Black Lives Matter to the Black Panther Party, evoking fear among uninformed citizens of an imagined past. Yet, such a comparison should inspire hope across the U.S. in times like these.

For instance, in addition to challenging police brutality, the Black Panther Party launched more than 35 Survival Programs and provided community help, such as education, tuberculosis testing, legal aid, transportation assistance, ambulance service, and the manufacture and distribution of free shoes to those who had previously gone without these resources. Particularly noteworthy note was the Free Breakfast for Children Program that spread to every major American city with a Black Panther Party chapter.

To the chagrin of F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover, the U.S. government adopted it as a federal program that has survived into the 21st century.

Further, from the outset of its founding in 1966, the influence of the Black Panther Party assumed a transnational character that went beyond the creation of support groups for the organization. We see similar patterns today, as groups around the world employ as their model Black Lives Matter to mobilize in support of the U.S. group and to address oppressive forces in their own lands.

Garrett Albert Duncan

Garrett Albert Duncan

In short, to paraphrase the poet Kahlil Gibran, Black Lives Matter—like the students in that Normandy High School classroom—may very well be the arrow that flows swift and steady to transform futures in the interests of personal and social justice. And, like Ms. R. and the resourced individuals and groups that support Black Lives Matter, those of us who care for our future, who desire to transform it into one where all lives truly matter, must be the bows that are strong and stable.

Garrett Albert Duncan is Associate Professor of Education in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.  He holds an appointment in African & African-American Studies and courtesy appointments in American Culture Studies and Urban Studies, and is a frequent commentator for national magazines and broadcast outlets. He welcomes comments from readers.