Police officers watch protesters as smoke fills the streets in Ferguson, Mo., on Nov. 25, 2014, after a grand jury’s decision not to indict an officer in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

In each of the past two years, police shootings killed nearly 1,000 people, according to The Washington Post’s Fatal Force project. The Black Lives Matter movement and smartphone videos of some of these deaths turned such shootings into an issue so prominent that, under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department investigated.

As a result, according to a January report by Reuters, 14 separate city police departments are now under federal consent decrees that require them to reform their use of force, profiling, recruitment, training and oversight.

Our research suggests that police agencies serious about reform might consider this: require police officers to file a report whenever they point a gun at someone but do not fire. 

Obama’s Justice Department started collecting data on police use of force

The Federal Bureau of Investigation currently collects data on police-involved deaths — but until Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA) in 2014, police agencies didn’t have to report on such deaths. But that law doesn’t require reporting on the nonlethal use of force, although the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended doing so in May 2015.

In 2016, the Justice Department announced that, through the FBI, it would launch an effort to go beyond the DCRA and create a comprehensive and publicly available source of information on all fatal and nonfatal use of force by police – sweetened with funding to help police forces pay to collect that data.

Of course, no one yet knows whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration will keep working to collect the data or to use the federal consent decrees to reform police departments.

How we did our research

And so several independent organizations are compiling information on police-involved gun fatalities. Our study uses data from Fatal Encounters, a nonprofit dedicated to cataloging every instance of police officers’ fatal use of force since 2000. Fatal Encounters collects information through volunteer reporting and public records requests, fact-checked by paid researchers.

Using the Fatal Encounters data, we used 5,141 police shootings to create civilian gun death rate estimates for more than 1,100 city and county police departments, and compared their rates of fatal shootings of civilians.

The rates at which police shot and killed civilians varied tremendously. Between 2000 and 2015, on average, the agencies we studied had just under two civilian gun deaths by police per 100,000 population. But those rates varied tremendously, even among very large city departments. For example, New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles had rates of 2.3, 4.6, and 5.8 police-involved fatalities per 100,000 population, respectively. In some cities, rates topped 12 per 100,000.

Why so much variation? We examined a series of departmental and community factors to see what best predicted higher death rates. We combined data from the U.S. Census on city demographics and a 2013 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on the features of the police agencies.

This was the only policy associated with a significant difference in death rates

Almost all departments require officers to report on every time a firearm is discharged – but as of 2013, only about 46 percent of agencies required officers to report and document every time they draw their firearms.

And that policy substantially reduces civilian deaths. Agencies that require officers to report every time they draw their weapons have significantly lower rates of fatal shootings by police, as we reveal in a Public Administration Review article on our research.

At least 40 fewer people would have died in officer-involved shootings between 2000 and 2015, we estimate, if the 10 police departments in our study that had the highest death rates had required officers to report every time they drew a weapon.

While we found that the requirement for reports after gun draws were associated with lower death rates, we should note that this association does not demonstrate a causal relationship. We would need more precise data than we have to show that the policy actually causes a reduction in death rates.

We hypothesize that the reporting requirement could cause reduced fatalities in two ways:

  1. Officers get the message that their agency is committed to avoiding unnecessary use of force.
  2. Knowing they’ll have to fill out paperwork may, at times, cause officers to hesitate to point their guns.

That second hypothesis raises a question: If officers think twice before pointing guns, are their lives in more danger? We checked.

In a separate statistical analysis we found no relationship between this policy and the rate of police officers killed. Additionally, Deputy Chief Patrick Daley of the Norwich Police Department in Connecticut said officers there did not object to the reporting requirement when the department added it around 2009. “It’s good practice, and it’s been well-received,” Daley said.

What about race? We were unable to examine factors such as the race of the officers or victims involved in particular gun deaths. Such data are only available sometimes. Until the federal government provides a comprehensive incident-level database on officer-involved fatalities, with mandatory reporting by all police agencies, it’ll be hard to research questions about race and other factors that may affect such shootings.

Meanwhile, police agencies looking to reduce officer-involved killings will have to look at suggestive evidence such as our study. Requiring officers to document each time they display their gun has been associated with lower civilian death rates. Many law enforcement consultants, certification programs and police manuals recommend this policy.

Our interviews with police agency officials suggest that the agencies most dedicated to adopting best practices may choose this policy. Departments interested in reducing civilian death rates may want to consider it as well.

Jay T. Jennings is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin.

Meghan E. Rubado is assistant professor of public administration and city management in the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University.