I admit that in a cropped photo it’s hard to distinguish the Gaza Strip from Ferguson, Mo. But the violence that occurred in the St. Louis suburb this month following the shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer isn’t the authoritarian injustice that it has been portrayed to be. It may be hard to hear, but we live quite safely in the United States thanks in large part to our law enforcement system. We experience civil unrest and cruel conflict vicariously, not personally. And our exposure to deadly violence largely comes from the news and entertainment world.
I don’t blame anyone for being shocked and offended when an armed government agent hurts or kills a civilian. Our humane, visceral reaction easily overshadows cold facts. But facts will define the truth in our courts and the truth is that physics and anatomy make sense of a shooting like Officer Darren Wilson’s encounter with Michael Brown. While I don’t have unique access to the details of that deadly encounter, I am familiar with the science of officer-involved shootings. Based on that science, I can confidently dispel some commonly held beliefs about law enforcement and use of force that have colored the debate around Brown’s death.
1. “Police shouldn’t shoot an unarmed teenager.”
No gun doesn’t mean no threat. FBI murder statistics consistently show that more people are beaten to death with hands and feet each year than are killed by assault rifles. Of the 465 weapons used to commit murder in Missouri in 2012, more than one in four were not firearms. A person’s size doesn’t mean that they are aggressive, but one’s stature is clearly a factor in a fight.
2. “Even if he did feel threatened, Wilson didn’t have to shoot Brown so many times.”
Brain processes take time and often move slower than reality. A study published in 2003 showed that it takes a shooter about one-third of a second to recognize a threat, then each trigger pull takes one-tenth of a second. But the mental process of deciding to stop shooting takes longer than the decision to shoot. The result is that another two or three shots can be fired as the senses, brain, nerves, and muscles put on the brakes. In other words, an officer can execute several trigger pulls after a visual input indicates a subject is no longer a threat.
Further, multiple shots don’t guarantee that a person will not continue to advance or attack. And it can take over a second for a body to fall to the ground after being fatally shot. This leaves even more time for shots to be fired before an officer’s finger stops pulling the trigger.
In total, whatever happened in Ferguson likely happened in the time it takes to sing the first four words of the national anthem — and the officer was forced to make quick decisions to keep up.
3. “Why do police keep killing all these unarmed people?”
Commentators like to infect sentences with phrase like “increased police violence” and “all these brutality cases.” A society in which children will see 16,000 murders as entertainment on television by the time they are eligible to vote will find it quite easy to believe that the police are shooting up their cities just like on their favorite cop show. But reality is much tamer than popular belief. Police use of force is rare.
A study cited by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that out of a reported 45 million face-to-face contacts annually between citizens and the police, fewer than 1 percent of those citizens reported any use of force. Of those who did report use of force, 74 percent self-reported that their own behavior instigated the force.
The most recent FBI crime report cites 410 people justifiably killed by police in 2011, the most recent FBI reporting period, 310 people killed by citizens acting in self-defense, and a 10-year average of 54 police officers killed in the line of duty. A study reported in 2012 in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin shows that 70 percent of police officers will face a deadly force decision an average of four times within a career. Just 20 percent shoot, and few kill.
For many, no facts will invade their opinion. But the current climate of mistrust is not sustainable. To repair the relationship, citizens must calm the rhetoric that assumes our nation’s police ranks are filled with psychotic brutes. Police leaders must take a breath and make innovative efforts to communicate with an unsettled public. Violent men and woman will continue to threaten our communities and police will continue to seek better ways to respond to the violence they encounter. Together the great American spirit of balancing freedom with responsibility can be the unifying force of reform wherever it is needed.
Correction: This piece originally stated that nearly a third of 2011 murders were committed without firearms. That statistic is incorrect. Data from the Missouri State Highway Patrol show that about 24 percent of all weapons used in murders that year were not firearms. The essay was updated to reflect 2012 data.
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