Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: Keeping Police Brutality in Check

By Sophie Karpf
Associate Editor, Vol. 25

As of November 2, 2019, the police have shot and killed 752 people this year.[1] While that number represents nearly 90 fewer shootings than there were at this time last year, there has not been an appreciable drop in fatal shootings for the past 5 years.[2] The most recent fatal police shooting to make national news was the killing of Atatiana Jefferson, a young black woman shot while in her own bedroom after a neighbor reported a door open at her house.[3] The police officer who killed Ms. Jefferson was charged with murder and resigned before he could be officially fired.[4] However, this provides little consolation for Ms. Jefferson’s family, who lost a daughter, sister, aunt, and friend, suddenly and illegally.

Ms. Jefferson’s death is just the most recent and most publicized story of a troubling and ongoing trend of police violence. Countless other police shootings don’t make the national headlines. Furthermore, police are rarely held accountable for killing innocent civilians like Ms. Jefferson. Just two days after Ms. Jefferson’s death, the Georgia police officer who shot Anthony Hill, an unarmed black man, was acquitted of murder charges. Instead, the jury convicted the officer of the lesser charges of aggravated assault, violating the oath of his office, and making a false statement.[5] While a conviction of any kind may look like accountability, the general trend of officers walking away without consequences demonstrates the public’s reluctance to hold officers accountable. The police officers who killed Michael Brown[6], Freddie Gray[7], Eric Garner[8], Tamir Rice[9], and Alton Sterling[10] never faced charges. Indeed, the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death still work on the Baltimore police force.[11] While the officer responsible for killing Tamir Rice was fired, he was later hired by a different police department.[12]

Accountability is rare, but not unheard of. In October of this year, a Dallas police officer was convicted of murder for the killing of Botham Jean, who she shot while he eating ice cream in his own apartment. She now faces 10 years in prison.[14]

These deaths are not isolated incidents. A study published in August 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated that “about 1 in 1,000 black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police.”[15] The risk for black men and boys is two and a half times greater than their white counterparts.[16] To frame it differently, young black men have a better chance of dying from police brutality than of winning the lottery.[17] These statistics are unsettling, disturbing, and unjust. What will it take to reduce police violence?

The Police Use of Force Project provides some ideas. This policy project analyzed the rules surrounding police use of force in the several largest police departments across the U.S. to determine what protocols the departments had in place for avoiding excessive use of force. The researchers collaborated with legal experts, police reformers, and academics to develop eight common sense reforms that could reduce police violence:

  1. Require officers to de-escalate situations, when possible, before using force.
  2. Use a Force Continuum or Matrix that define/limit the types of force and specific weapons that can be used to respond to specific levels of resistance.
  3. Restrict chokeholds and strangleholds (including carotid restraints) to situations where deadly force is authorized or prohibiting them altogether.
  4. Require officers to give a verbal warning, when possible, before using deadly force.
  5. Prohibit officers from shooting at people in moving vehicles unless the person poses a deadly threat by means other than the vehicle (for example, shooting at people from the vehicle).
  6. Require officers to exhaust all other reasonable alternatives before resorting to using deadly force.
  7. Require officers to intervene to stop another officer from using excessive force.
  8. Require officers to report both uses of force and threats/attempted uses of force (for example, reporting instances where an officer intentionally points a firearm at a civilian).[18]

These policies track previous scholarship, consent decrees from the Department of Justice, and recommendations from other police reform groups.[19] The Police Use of Force results demonstrate the negative correlation between the number of these polices implemented in police departments and the number of people killed by that department.[20] Significantly, “police departments that implement all eight use of force policies would kill 72% fewer people on average than departments with none of these policies in place.”[21]

Although this research is promising, it is by no means a silver bullet. Changing police culture is a monumental task. Because policing is localized, there are more than 18,000 individualized police agencies in the country.[22] Each police agency could have its own policy for how much force to allow officers to use, leading to immense variability and inconsistent practices throughout the country. Additionally, police officers routinely need to make difficult split-second decisions under pressure, which can lead to officers pulling the trigger unnecessarily.

Despite there being so many individualized police departments, the federal government could catalyze changes in police culture by providing funding for policy changes and training overhauls.[23] We know that departments that have integrated new training programs coupled with the policies encouraged by the Police Use of Force have seen results: “In Baltimore, where training was overhauled in the face of a Justice Department investigation the police department saw excessive-force complaints drop by 36 percent in 2016 and a further 42 percent in 2017.”[24]

Incremental changes for a deep seated and multi-level problem exist and should be implemented. They provide a glimmer of hope that with better training, better policies, and better leadership, we can significantly reduce police violence and create safer communities for all.

[1] Julie Tate et al., Fatal Force, Wash. Post (Oct. 18, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/national/police-shootings-2019/.

[2] Id.

[3] Dana Branham & Jennifer Emily, Atatiana Jefferson pointed gun at window before Fort Worth officer killed her, nephew told authorities, Dallas Morning News (Oct. 15, 2019), https://www.dallasnews.com/news/crime/2019/10/15/atatiana-jefferson-pointed-gun-out-window-before-fort-worth-officer-killed-her-nephew-told-authorities/.

[4] Id.

[5] Rick Rojas & Richard Fausset, Former Georgia Officer Who Killed a Black Man Is Convicted, but Not of Murder, N.Y. Times (Oct. 14, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/us/robert-olsen-anthony-hill-shooting.html.

[6] Jake Halpern, The Cop, The New Yorker, Aug. 10 & 17 2015.

[7] Rebecca R. Ruiz, Baltimore Officers Will Face No Federal Charges in Death of Freddie Gray, N.Y. Times (Sept. 12, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/12/us/freddie-gray-baltimore-police-federal-charges.html.

[8] Katie Benner, Eric Garner’s Death Will Not Lead to Federal Charges for N.Y.P.D. Officer, N.Y. Times (July 16, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/16/nyregion/eric-garner-case-death-daniel-pantaleo.html.

[9] Timothy Williams & Mitch Smith, Cleveland Officer Will Not Face Charges in Tamir Rice Shooting Death, N.Y. Times (Dec. 28, 2015), https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/29/us/tamir-rice-police-shootiing-cleveland.html?module=inline.

[10] Rebecca R. Ruiz, Officers Won’t Be Charged in Black Man’s Shooting Death in Louisiana, N.Y. Times (May 2, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/02/us/alton-sterling-justice-department.html?module=inline.

[11] Ruiz, supra note 7.

[12] Matthew Haag, Cleveland Officer Who Killed Tamir Rice Is Hired by an Ohio Police Department, N.Y. Times (Oct. 8, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/08/us/timothy-loehmann-tamir-rice-shooting.html.

[13] Bobby Allyn, Amber Guyger, Ex-Officer Who Killed Man In His Apartment, Given 10 Years In Prison, NPR (Oct. 2, 2019), https://www.npr.org/2019/10/02/766454839/amber-guyger-ex-officer-who-killed-man-in-his-apartment-given-10-years-in-prison.

[14] Id.

[15] Amina Khan, Getting killed by police is a leading cause of death for young black men in America, L.A. Times (Aug. 16, 2019), https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2019-08-15/police-shootings-are-a-leading-cause-of-death-for-black-men.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Samuel Sinyagwe, Examining the Role of Use of Force Policies in Ending Police Violence 2 (Sept. 20, 2016), https://mjrldotorg.files.wordpress.com/2019/11/d5ed3-useofforcestudy.pdf.

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at 3.

[21] Id.

[22] Chuck Wexler, What it will take to reduce deadly shootings by police, Wash. Post (Jan. 19, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/what-it-will-take-to-reduce-deadly-shootings-by-police/2018/01/19/003df822-f65e-11e7-a9e3-ab18ce41436a_story.html.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.