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In recent weeks, Southern California National Public Radio affiliate KPCC produced web and broadcast “analysis” of Officer-Involved Shootings (OIS) in Los Angeles County over the last five years. Their quest, per the website, was to establish “how often” law enforcement shoots suspects in LA County. They did anything but.
The project was built on examinations of the LA County District Attorney’s reports on OIS incidents and coroners’ reports for fatal shootings, and included an extensive database and website, from which were generated radio reports focusing on certain discrete aspects of the data. Having covered use-of-force issues for 20 years, I found the reports were predictably biased with selective, cherry-picked data framed to generate innuendo and misconceptions.
Almost every “Officer-Involved” radio report opened with three facts KPCC “discovered”: A quarter of all people shot by LA law enforcement are unarmed. About 23 percent are black, a number disproportionate to their 8 percent share of the population. And, no officer has been prosecuted for an on-duty shooting in 15 years.
“What’s the solution?” queried the series’ final segment, without specifying the problem to solve. “Is this a problem?” would be the question after an objective look at the facts.
Many of the answers are in plain sight, though unpleasant and ill-fitted to KPCC’s narrative. For example: Much attention was devoted to the disproportion of African Americans killed by the police. Hints of racism peppered the hour-long conversation that Air Talk host Larry Mantle devoted to this issue. Yet it took a caller to Mantle’s show (me) to ask if maybe – just maybe – blacks are disproportionately killed by cops because cop-killers are vastly disproportionately black.
In fact, while blacks make up roughly 12 percent of the US population, 39 percent of cop-killers are black (224 of 563 between 2005 and 2014, according to the FBI). That single omitted fact puts the 23 percent figure in a very different context.
That doesn’t mean biased policing or unjustified shootings never happen. But, each OIS stands alone as a set of facts addressing a specific perceived threat. KPCC made no exploration of the threat aspect whatsoever.
Perhaps the most significant fact is one the KPCC team essentially ignored: OIS are extremely rare. This was allegedly KPCC’s whole point. Their “How We Did It” web page states they “set out to analyze how often on-duty [local law enforcement] shot another person.” But, little reporting explored that question.
Over the five years examined, only 700 of the area’s 25,000 cops were in shootings. That figure was mentioned on just one web page and unmentioned in hours of audio I reviewed. But even 3 percent is extremely misleading.
Consider the LAPD. Their OIS incidents doubled in 2015, to 45. Arrests are down almost 10 percent to roughly 115,000 this year. So, in a time when arrests are shrinking and shootings have exploded, Angelenos still have much less than a 1-in-2,000 chance of being shot by a cop – if arrested. That’s 1/20th of one percent of all arrests.
But, those 115,000 arrests exclude millions of other contacts, like interviews and traffic stops. If each of the LAPD’s 9,878 sworn officers contacted just one person per day this year, there have been over 3 million contacts. Yet, just 45 shootings resulted. The unspoken answer to KPCC’s “how often” question is: “rarely.”
Perhaps most disappointing was KPCC’s wasted chance to truly broaden understanding of the reasons people are shot and the context of the threat to officers. There was no examination of the most critical question: What’s different about the tiny fraction of citizen contacts that result in shootings? There was no examination of use-of-force training content or reporter’s experiences in force simulations.
Presumably they made no such effort. There was no discussion of the threats officers face. There was no mention of the innumerable Internet videos that show both officers shooting suspects and being shot by them, despite the often repeated statement that such videos will shed light on the topic.
KPCC often emphasized that half of the 97 “unarmed” people shot by police had put their hands out of sight or moved toward their waistbands. Mentioned only once was this key statistic: Police shot 148 people who failed to show their hands or made such movements. Of them, 101 were actually armed. So, shooting someone who won’t show their hands is often a sound decision.
The reports made mention that in 320 of the 375 incidents reviewed, officers did not use any other weapons first. There was no exploration of how often use of another weapon was practical in terms of timing, threat or availability. Regardless, they tossed out the figure absent any context.
Equally ignored was the key driver of every shooting – the consequence of not shooting. The line between being killed, killing an assailant and a controversial tragedy is frightfully thin and grey – and fundamental to the issue.
If KPCC wanted build understanding of why shooting an unarmed person may be legally justifiable, it needed only review the January video of Flagstaff, AZ officer Tyler Stewart’s murder. He was shot in a fraction of a second by a suspect whose hands were stuffed in his pockets – seconds after denying he was armed. Comparing this video to that of the 2013 killing of an unarmed man by Gardena Police (who clearly reached to his waistband) or 12-year-old Cleveland resident Tamir Rice would be enlightening. But, no.
Similarly, KPCC offered no “analysis” of data reflecting the dynamics of shootings, like elapsed time from when an officer sees a suspect to the actual shooting. Often, this is mere seconds, providing a sense of how rapidly these engagements develop and why split-second decisions are necessary and necessarily imperfect.
KPCC is right about one thing. The data is not uniform and is hard to assemble. But misrepresenting and omitting facts to create more misperception is worse than having no data at all.