Sunday, May 20, 2001

Was it excessive force?

Going beyond the statistics to find out

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — Since many factors are involved in fatal police shootings, experts say numbers alone do not fully explain whether a department has a tendency toward excessive force.

        Cincinnati police have been involved in 15 deaths of African-Americans since 1995: Six were armed with guns, another took away an officer's gun and shot another officer. One was armed with a knife, one wielded a brick, another held a board with nails. Three, including Timothy Thomas, were not armed. Two of the incidents involved suspects in cars, one of which ultimately dragged an officer to his death in September 2000.

        The April 7 fatal police shooting of Mr. Thomas, 19, led to protests and riots and prompted the Department of Justice to investigate whether Cincinnati police have used a pattern of excessive force.

        An Enquirer sampling of similarly sized cities found that the number of fatal police shootings can vary substantially.

        St. Louis police, for instance, shot and killed 20 suspects over the past six years; Anaheim, Calif., police shot and killed 17. Pittsburgh police shot and killed six suspects, while Buffalo police had only one fatal shooting.

        Police departments are not required to report fatal police shootings to any state or federal oversight agency, so no comprehensive regional or national database exists.

        “You cannot statistic your way out of a human problem,” said Sheldon Greenberg, director of the Police Executive Leadership Program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

        Several variables can dilute direct comparisons between similar cities, including population density, economics, violent crime, gang activity, and the relationship between the police department and people in low-income neighborhoods, where most fatal police shootings occur.

        Mr. Greenberg, who has studied police performance in several cities, said the most important factor may be the degree of trust between police officers and the community they serve. In Cincinnati, civil-rights activists have alleged a 30-year pattern of racial discrimination by police. The police division has defended its reputation as a force committed to equality, but suspicion exists in neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine, where Mr. Thomas was shot after a foot chase.

Policing the police
        The officer, Stephen Roach, was indicted on negligent homicide and obstructing official business charges.

        “The bottom line is that the police are often the first line of support for people in poor neighborhoods,” Mr. Greenberg said. “If that breaks down, all kinds of other things break down. The police become the enemy.”

        Justice Department investigators will examine fatal police shootings in Cincinnati as well as the division's training, supervision and disciplinary procedures. Federal officials will also review citizen complaints and suits against the division to determine whether police practices have violated residents' civil rights.

        Ted Schoch, director of the Cincinnati Police Academy, said a realistic portrait of excessive force would include how often officers are challenged or threatened by suspects, how often officers have to use force to restrain suspects, and how often officers use their weapons.

A community with questions
        Mr. Schoch acknowledged that it is difficult, if not impossible, to track every circumstance officers encounter.

        “That's why police are behind the eight ball,” Mr. Schoch said. “It's like trying to measure how much crime officers prevent.”

        But the community anger directed at Cincinnati police since the Thomas shooting goes deeper than the individual details of the case. Even those who are willing to accept the fact that most police shootings are circumstantial, and that officers are in peril every day in dangerous neighborhoods, wonder why all 15 people killed by police in the past six years were black.

        Norma Holt Davis, president of the Cincinnati branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said she believes Cincinnati police interact differently with black people than with others.

        “We believe there is a culture in this police department that has promoted that kind of behavior,” she said.

Some say racism runs rampant
        Nationally, many civil-rights leaders allege there is institutionalized racism at every level of the criminal justice system, from racial profiling in traffic stops to disparate arrest, conviction and sentencing practices.

        Nkechi Taifa, director of the equal justice program at Howard University's School of Law, said if police disproportionately target blacks in surveillance, blacks will inevitably be convicted of more crimes, providing the statistical ammunition to further target blacks.

        “It's an unbreakable cycle,” she said.

        The lack of a national database on police shootings makes it harder to put incendiary events like the Thomas shooting into perspective.

        The Justice Department compiles voluntary reports from police on what departments consider justifiable homicides by officers. Federal researchers estimate there are 373 justifiable homicides by police on average each year. The Justice Department database is considered the most complete available, yet it has significant gaps because it is voluntary. In 1998, for example, only two of the 11 cities the Enquirer sampled — Toledo and Santa Ana, Calif. — filed reports, according to department officials.

Getting the big picture

        Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would be open to a national database so long as enough detail is provided about each incident to help draw conclusions about police practices.

        “The most important thing is what happens in each case,” he said.

        Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, said reports on the number of fatal police shootings are “inaccurate and misleading without going into the details.”

        “I think that you should give the context of what happened to give the public the complete picture,” he said. “It's hard to put a few years together and draw a picture about police.”

        Mr. Chabot said he would support a national database on police shootings if he could be convinced the statistics would improve police work.

        “I don't think we should collect numbers just to collect numbers,” he said.

        Joe Riga, chief of homicide for the Buffalo police, which had the fewest number of fatal police shootings in the Enquirer survey, said the differences between departments probably are not linked to any specific training or police practices. Several suspects in Buffalo, he said, have been seriously wounded in police shootings but survived.

        “I think it's all very circumstantial,” he said.

        Buffalo, like Cincinnati, is under investigation by the Justice Department for a pattern or practice of possible civil-rights violations. The federal scrutiny in Buffalo involves the police use of pepper spray against suspects.

Police force on the decline
        Police officials argue it is unfair to blame only the police when an officer-involved shooting is the catalyst for protests and riots over larger questions of economics or racial equality.

        “It's almost the luck of the draw,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, a Nashville, Tenn., based police advocacy group. “You don't look to the officer, you look to the situation they find themselves in.”

        Mr. Pasco said police use of force is on the decline, but that assaults against police officers are increasing. The International Association of Chiefs of Police in Alexandria, Va., estimated in a recent report that police officers used some type of force 3.5 times for every 10,000 calls for service, down from 4.1 times for every 10,000 calls in a previous study. But the data is based on voluntary reports from 319 of the nation's 18,000 law enforcement agencies.

        The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which monitors the number of slain police officers nationally, reported that 150 officers were killed last year, up from 134 in 1999 but down from a high of 271 in 1974.


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