Why Are Police Shootings of Innocents on the Rise?

AP Photo/The Chronicle-Tribune, Jeff Morehead

In New York City, police mistakes get played out on a big stage. In September, the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) performance was caught on camera in crowded Times Square when two officers shot at an unarmed suspect, missed him, and hit two bystanders instead. The man had been lurching in and out of traffic, ignoring police commands to stop, and at one point pulled his hand out of his pants as if he had a gun, according to a report in The New York Times.

It was the latest in the department’s two-year run of an unusually high number of unintentional shootings of innocents. Last August, police wounded nine bystanders while unloading 16 rounds at a suspect who’d just shot a co-worker on the street near the Empire State Building. In separate cases last year, cops wounded four other bystanders.

Gun battles and shoot-don’t-shoot decisions can be appallingly hard for even experienced cops to handle well. Low light, suspects in motion, and combat stress all affect accuracy and judgment. Criminologist David Klinger of the University of Missouri-St. Louis tells the story of a SWAT officer involved in an early-morning arrest of four suspects driving a van. When one of them raised a pistol, the officer fired several rounds from almost point-blank range—three or four feet away. One of the bullets missed completely, hitting a second suspect, and the rest hit the first suspect in his extremities instead of his chest, where the officer had been aiming.

In those adrenaline-filled encounters, good training more often than not makes the difference. Practicing realistic simulations of live fire allows cops to make better decisions and hit what they’re shooting at. In many jurisdictions, however, they aren’t getting enough or the right kind of weapons training, in part because of cuts to police-training budgets. That puts both bystanders and sometimes police in the line of fire, and local governments on the hook for big payouts.

Some of those wounded in the NYPD’s Empire State shooting last August are suing the city for allegedly less-than-adequate police training. Michael Lamonsoff, a lawyer for several victims, argues that New York cops don’t get the fine-grained instruction that would let them respond well in different settings. For example, there’s no requirement that officers who work in densely populated neighborhoods get more practice or instruction on whether or how to use their guns around crowds, he says. “It’s ludicrous not to do that,” Lamonsoff says.

The NYPD didn’t respond to requests for comment. But Commissioner Ray Kelly told the Times last December, “You can always train more. We can train people 30 days a year, 40 days a year. … We’re down 6,000 police officers already. How much training do you do?” Right now, officers take two days out of the year to practice on a target range and one day to train on tactics, according to the report.

It’s hard to say how that compares with departments around the country. No one collects data on how much weapons training police get or how many times a year they accidentally shoot someone. What research has been done shows big differences between local departments in the quality and quantity of their training and the shooting tests police have to pass to keep their jobs.

That was one finding of a study in the journal Law Enforcement Executive Forum in June. Researcher Gregory Morrison, himself a former officer and firearms instructor, surveyed more than 300 police departments. In more than half of them, if officers failed their shooting tests, they were allowed do-overs—they could just retake the tests with minimal or no remedial instruction. Less than two-thirds required that firearms instructors themselves take refresher trainings. Nearly two-thirds denied their firearms instructors access to the outcomes of investigations of officer-involved shootings—information the instructors could use to improve their training curriculums. The wide latitude in approaches, Morrison’s study concluded, “raises real concerns about how prepared many police officers are for encounters that reasonably could involve the use or threatened use of deadly force.”

Lack of training puts cops at risk just as much as bystanders—if not more. For example, Morrison says handgun skills are the quickest to deteriorate. He found that the average department had cops practice with their handguns four times a year. That might sound fine until you consider a 2006 FBI study’s finding that those suspected of murdering cops reported training on their handguns 23 times a year, as firearms instructor Dave Grossi points out. Worse, more than half of the departments in Morrison’s study did handgun training only once or twice a year.

Morrison’s study used data he collected in 2008. Training has likely deteriorated even more in the five years since thanks to budget cuts. In a survey released in February by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), 55 percent of the 416 police departments responding reported that money for their training programs had been slashed in 2012 (that was at least better than 2010, when 72 percent reported training cuts). In Sarasota, Florida, police have gotten one hour of firearms training per year for the last several years due to budget cuts, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. That’s down from 64 hours a year in 1997.

Less money has forced many firearms instructors to do what school teachers with slim resources traditionally have, donating their own money and time to the cause. Harvey Hedden directs the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, which holds an annual conference that offers advanced courses to firearms instructors. Since the recession, more than half of the 700 to 800 trainers who show up every year pay their own way, he says—their departments no longer foot the bill.

The lack of national data on police training or officer-involved shootings makes it impossible to know whether budget cuts are causing more deaths of innocent people or changing police behavior. But one thing is obvious. Less training can cost police departments big. When they lose the civil suits that sometimes result from such shootings, the financial hit shows the penny-wise-pound-foolishness of cutting training. Payouts in some of those cases have ranged from $8 to $12 million, says Emanuel Kapelsohn, a lawyer and vice president of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors. The number of lawsuits against the NYPD has shot up more than 50 percent in the last five years, from about 6,300 in 2008 to more than 9,500 in 2012—in fiscal 2012, those cost the city $152 million. In that same period, claims against all other city agencies have fallen. Lawsuits against the Department of Transportation, for example, dropped from about 5,500 to 4,700 in that period.

Local governments could win more of those cases—or better, avoid them altogether—if their cops more often practiced realistic simulations of combat situations. Hedden would like to see more role-play training, in which other officers play armed bad guys. Police tell him that practicing armed standoffs best prepares them to make good decisions involving deadly force. But it also costs a lot. Technology could offer part of the solution as computer simulations of combat situations for police get better and cheaper.

But in the absence of more money, we at least need better information, such as national data on the number of officer-involved shootings and the amount of firearms instruction that cops are getting, says Morrison. Without it, we’ll never learn what kind of training brings better results on the ground, he says—fewer casualties among police and those they’re supposed to protect. 

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