More than half of the deaths from 2005 to 2015, 511 cases, were considered justifiable homicides, instances in which police used deadly force on a suspect because they feared for their own lives or the lives of others. And those numbers have been rising, from 32 justifiable homicides in 2005, to 61 in 2014 and 54 last year.The bottom DMN graphic at right depicts the leading causes of deaths in police custody, with a significant spike in deaths that agencies reported as "justifiable homicides." (The other leading death causes: "In 126 incidents between 2005 and 2015, suspects police encountered took their own lives. Another 121 of the deaths were attributed to drug and alcohol overdoses.")
Asked to explain the rise in shootings during a period when overall arrests steeply declined, our pal Charley Wilkison, lobbyist for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, offered an absurd analysis:
Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, attributed the rise in violent confrontations largely to increasingly aggressive suspects who refuse to cooperate with officers.The only problem with Charley's analysis is its utter falsity. Far from a "new kind of lawlessness," crime in America has declined overall since 2005 and police are safer on the job today than they've been in many decades. The folks who collect your garbage are much more likely to die on the job. Indeed, the recent tragedy in Dallas makes it easy to forget that most on-the-job police deaths stem from traffic accidents, exacerbated by an officer culture that disdains seat belt use.
Officers are “facing a new kind of lawlessness,” he said, “a sense that police are not necessarily on the side of the public that’s being broadcast far and wide.”
No, with arrests and crime both declining, and with the increase in shootings predating Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, one can't reasonably blame negative publicity for increased police shootings. I've never understood that whole Ferguson-effect argument, anyway: The claim seems to be that cops feel unfairly blamed for misconduct and this causes them to misbehave, fail to do their jobs, shoot more people, or something. The meme morphs with every iteration and comes off as more of an excuse than a valid reason. Since when does being criticized excuse poor performance? Perhaps instead the criticism results from poor performance, coupled with a staunch refusal to accept responsibility? That reasoning seems just as likely.
Brandi's story runs through several hypotheses besides Charley's to explain the data, but none of them strike me as especially convincing. A Dallas attorney rightly blamed legal precedents that shield bad cops and departments from liability: “There is no legal incentive for a municipality to have a policy that discourages lethal force in certain instances.” I agree, but that was equally true before 2005.
Another suggested reason was law enforcement training: "Some law enforcement experts and lawyers attribute the increase to lax police training that fails to teach officers how to de-escalate sensitive situations. They also contend there is little accountability for officers who kill in the heat of the moment." Again, there's little doubt that's true. But I'm not sure training changed substantially over that period, so it's unclear how much explanatory value that has.
Grits has a few gut-reaction thoughts on why shootings by police spiked, though these are mere hunches, not evidence-based assertions.
First, we must note that it's possible the recent rise isn't particularly significant at all. Police shootings occur in such a small percentage of police-public interactions that these could be normal variations, not exemplary of a trend. We're dealing with extremely small numbers.
To the extent the increase does represent a meaningful trend, however, let's hypothesize other possible causes.
Could increased militarization of law enforcement equipment and training have anything to do with it? Military tactics have migrated to even the most common points of interaction with the "non-criminal suspect" population - traffic stops and event security. One recalls that Round Rock PD officers used "Points of Domination" techniques adapted from military methods when removing Slade Sullivan from his pickup face-first, resulting in his paralysis and ultimately his death. How widespread are such tactics and to what extent have they contributed to deaths in custody (besides Sullivan's)? ¿Quien sabe?
In a related development, might hiring preferences for Iraq and Afghan war veterans have infused law enforcement with new, young officers schooled in military approaches and conditioned by training and combat experience to shoot more quickly than perhaps is appropriate in peacetime settings?
Another thought: Could pro-police sentiments among the public after 9/11 have shielded police from accountability in ways that discouraged criticism or discipline of bad cops?
Or, here's one I seldom hear discussed: Perhaps increased access to criminal history records contributed to the trend? One of the biggest changes to front-end policing in the last ten years has been expanded access to real-time criminal history data. A police officer who pulled someone over at a traffic stop 15 years ago might assume a driver was guilty of nothing other than running a stop sign or driving 50 in a 40. Today, that officer may know before they even get out of the car whether a driver has a prior criminal record. And that knowledge could influence how they approach the stop, making them more prone to be nervous and jumpy. Texas has dinged millions of people with criminal convictions in recent decades. The vast majority are otherwise indistinguishable from anyone else until the moment the officer runs their plates or checks their drivers licenses. Has that added knowledge needlessly amped up some encounters? It would only take a few to explain these data.
Who knows? I'm spitballing here. It's difficult to imagine an explanation which fits the timeline. Readers should take a look at Brandi's article and use the comment section to suggest other possible explanations for the rise in shootings by police since 2005. Perhaps y'all will think of reasons Grits hadn't considered.