New York City police officers shot fewer people in 2017 than in any other year since records began. The 23 shootings, approximately half of which were fatal, compared to 37 in 2016, 59 in 2005 and 147 in 1996. Two main factors explain this decrease: better training and the increasing use of stun guns rather than traditional weapons to apprehend suspects and assailants. While police officers used stun guns 1,710 times in 2016, this number increased by more than a third in 2017, rising to 2,372.
Despite these encouraging figures, NYPD shootings continue to happen and remain a source of criticism. Just last month police shot and killed a black man in Brooklyn after receiving several 911 calls that a man with a silver gun was pointing it at people. When officers approached him, he “took a two-handed shooting stance” and pointed it at them. Four officers fired 10 rounds, killing the man. His gun turned out to be a bent silver pipe. Later investigation revealed that the man suffered from a bipolar disorder.
Police killings statistics
Nationwide, police killings of black Americans, whether by shooting or other means, have received extensive media coverage in recent years. From Freddie Gray in Baltimore to Walter Scott in South Carolina to Michael Brown in Missouri to Eric Garner in New York City, police officers kill blacks at a much higher rate than whites. Many of these incidents result in civil lawsuits.
The demographics of police killings per million of population broke down as follows in 2016:
- Native Americans: 10.1
- Blacks: 6.7
- Hispanics and Latinos: 3.2
- Whites 2.9
- Asians and Pacific Islanders: 1.2
Many people attribute the over three times higher rate of black killings as compared to white killings to the fact that police officers naturally patrol high-crime neighborhoods more vigorously than they patrol low-crime neighborhoods. Since high-crime neighborhoods tend to be disproportionately black, it follows that police kill more blacks.
Others, however, theorize that many police officers have a racial bias, whether they admit it or not. Results of a study conducted by a psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder using a video simulation showed that police officers more quickly shoot black suspects than white suspects.
One of the problems for those who choose to view it as a problem is the fact that per two U.S. Supreme Court cases dating back to the 1980s, police officers can use deadly force in two circumstances. The first is in protection of their life or that of a bystander. The second is in an attempt to stop a fleeing suspect who they have probable cause to believe poses a dangerous threat.
Both of these standards put the decision to shoot squarely in the officers’ own minds rather than in an objective assessment of whether or not the shooting victim actually posed a threat. On the other hand, police officers must make split-second decisions. There is no time for objective assessment. By law, however, an officer’s “objectively reasonable” belief that the suspect posed a threat is precisely the objectivity required for a justified police shooting.
This circular reasoning means that police officers have tremendous legal latitude when it comes to shooting or using force to subdue or stop a suspect. This, in turn, means that few police officers face prosecution when they kill someone. Even when prosecutors bring charges, juries seldom convict police officers. They tend to believe the officer’s testimony is more credible than that of the witnesses who saw the shooting. Thus the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard or proof required to convict any defendant of a crime favors police officers when they are brought to trial.
Even when a jury acquits a police officer in a criminal case, however, the family members of the victim can bring a civil lawsuit against the officer for violation of their loved one’s civil rights. In these lawsuits the standard of proof is much lower, i.e., a preponderance of the evidence. Plaintiffs therefore need prove only that the officer more likely than not caused their loved one’s death, thereby depriving him/her of his/her constitutional rights.