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Freddie Gray: death by legal intervention

A UMBC examination of Baltimore/DC police use of lethal force turns up surprising data.

Eric Garner in New York's Staten Island, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Walter Scott in Summerville, S.C. And now Freddie Gray, right here in our beloved Charm City, becomes the latest citizen to join a macabre roster: the growing list of unarmed black men killed by police, their deaths thrust into the national spotlight, generating scrutiny and outrage. The seeming explosion of such cases around the country prompted me to engage my social research methods students at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) in a project: examining trends in deadly force incidents that have occurred here in the Baltimore/DC area over the last 25 years (1990 to 2015) by searching The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post news archives for all cases in which a citizen was killed by an on-duty officer.

We assumed that any such case that resulted in a death would generate at least a brief news story, and so we set about carefully collecting and coding key pieces of information from these articles, including details such as the work shift during which the interaction happened, whether the suspect was armed or noted to be mentally ill, and the experience level of the officer who did the shooting. Students wondered if there really are more cases now than in the past due, perhaps, to more militarized styles of policing, or if the seeming increase in cases is simply a figment of the media attention. What can we learn about the patterns and themes that characterize these cases?

You might be surprised, as were my students, to learn that we currently have no way of really knowing how common police use of lethal force against citizens actually is, as no systematic data is collected to track such incidents, despite pleas for accountability from public intellectuals right here in Baltimore like David Simon, creator of HBO's "The Wire." Unlike as with most other crime data, there is no mandatory reporting of these incidents to the FBI's Uniform Crime database. Considering how much data is compiled on each of us every day by government entities and corporations alike, it seems odd that no data at all is assembled to document these cases. Without data, it is far too easy to dismiss the magnitude or pattern of a behavior. By contrast, extensive data is collected and indexed by the FBI for each case in which a police officer is killed or assaulted in the line of duty.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which record and classify the manner of death for all Americans, keep the only systematic national documentation of any kind that reports upon citizens killed by police. These are categorized as "deaths by legal intervention," and the name itself says much about how we regard such cases. Blacks (mostly males) comprised 29 percent of the 159 incidents recorded in 2008 (the last year for which a report compiling this data was published), but they make up just over 13 percent of the overall American population. In 2013, a total of 27 officers were feloniously killed while on duty. Given that deaths by legal intervention are four times more common than are cases of police officers killed in the line of duty, shouldn't we also be collecting and tracking data for these incidents?

When my students and I examined cases of citizens being killed by police here in the Baltimore/DC area over the last 25 years, several interesting observations emerge:

(1) It is a misnomer that there are more cases of police use of deadly force now than at any point in the past.

In our data, the year with the most deaths (27) was 1993. There were 21 deaths in 1994, but then rates declined for several years until a spike of cases occurred 2002, when there were 20 incidents. The average number of cases per year was 10.7. It seems worth noting that community policing became very popular across this country in the mid 1990s but was then eclipsed by a more militaristic approach after 9/11.

(2) The vast majority of cases in which police kill a citizen do impact black men.

Of the 262 cases we identified in which the victim's sex was reported, only 6 percent (16 cases) were women. Curiously, the race of the victim was much less frequently reported in news articles, but in the 50 cases for which the victim's race was reported, 76 percent of the dead citizens were black; 16 percent were Latino or Hispanic; 4 percent were white; and 4 percent were Asian.

In 1990, according to U.S. Census data, 39.1 percent of residents in the city of Baltimore were white. By 2000, that number had dropped to 31.6 percent — where it remains as of 2013. In the District of Columbia, 29.6 percent of residents were white in 1990. That figure had climbed to 43.4 percent in 2013.

So black men really are dying at a higher rate than they are represented in the broader population, very likely due to the war on drugs which generated more scrutiny and aggressive policing of black neighborhoods. Our public policies directed police to work in this way; we must now challenge and support them to take a different approach.

(3) Contrary to popular opinion, most victims of police shootings are not very young men.

It turns out that the average age of victims was 31.7 years, which was pretty close to the median age of 29.5. Victims in our study ranged from 2 to 78 years of age, but a relative few (6.4 percent) were under 18, and many were in their 30s and 40s.

(4) In the great number of cases, the citizen was noted as having been armed.

In nearly half (48.5 percent) of the cases we examined, a gun was allegedly found on the victim. In 17.5 percent of cases, there was a knife reportedly found, and in about a quarter of cases (23.2 percent), no weapon was reported. In a small number of cases (9.3 percent), the weapon was otherwise classified (dogs, cars, umbrellas, etc.), or there were multiple weapons present (1.5 percent of cases). In 64.9 percent of cases, the citizen was noted as having been brandishing a weapon, but that leaves at least one third of cases in which no weapon was displayed to police. And after the Walter Scott video, we have to assume that some of the weapons that were allegedly present/being brandished could have been planted or posed.

(5) The vast majority of these incidents occurred early in an officer's career, during their second and fifth years of service.

This was one of the most interesting things we found. Of the 116 cases in which the tenure of the officer was known, the average number of years in service of the officer who killed the citizen was 8.4 years, but the median was just six years and the mode (most common year of service noted) was just two years (15 of the 116 cases, or 12.9 percent). A full 52.6 percent of these cases occur within the first six years of an officer's service. Crossing the tenure of the officer's service against whether a weapon was brandished indicates negative relationship between years of service and the use of deadly force — meaning that older officers were more likely to reserve force for cases in which the citizen/suspect pulled a weapon.

It is also quite possible that officers in the earlier years of service are more likely to be out patrolling streets and encountering incidents that escalate to the use of force. Perhaps officers could be better trained early on to respond in different ways — or to engage principles of community policing so as to reduce the general level of potential violence.

The civil unrest generated by public reaction to the national spotlight being shown upon this issue should make us all wonder whether we, as a society, are capable of interracial policing. In the end, of course, we must be able to do this work in an open, just and civil manner. To reach that goal, however, we must honestly and candidly examine how we have been policing by using the sometimes-harsh mirror that objective social data provides. Most police interactions are respectful and professional, but a significant dysfunctional pattern exists in how white police officers interact with black suspects.

We have seen the worst of this behavior displayed so candidly in the Walter Scott video: an officer appearing to shoot a suspect in cold blood and then plant a weapon on the victim. These are things that black men have long told us happen more often than we want to believe. And while the video highlights a specific incident, it finally prompted an officer to be charged with murder in the death of a citizen. In Baltimore on Friday, six city officers were charged criminally in Freddie Gray's death. Though the charges each received varied, all were charged with some form of assault and misconduct in office; one was charged with 2nd degree, depraved heart murder — the most serious of the charges brought — and others were charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Too often, without a video, police officers are exonerated via internal investigations based on rules that prioritize officers' accounts. Let's start collecting the data we need to track and systematically examine such incidents and use it to challenge and improve upon our policing until it fully reflects the integrity of our American ideal of equality under the law.

Suzanne Lea is an adjunct sociology professor at UMBC; her email is sgoodney@umbc.edu. Social Research Methods Students at UMBC contributed to this piece.

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