Gateway journalism review - 2016

Just the facts

Illustration: Steve Edwards

Illustration: Steve Edwards

By William H. Freivogel

In the often emotional debate about police shootings of unarmed black men, Professor David Klinger is unique.  Klinger himself was a police officer in Los Angeles who had to use deadly force to kill a man. And Klinger does not take a strong advocacy position in a discussion filled with strong advocates.

What the University of Missouri St. Louis criminologist does feel strongly about is that the nation needs much better data to figure out what is happening with police shootings.  One can almost hear him saying, Joe Friday style, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

The death of Michael Brown has spurred Klinger’s quest for the facts. 

“A small cadre and I have been arguing for decades for establishment of better data…on the use of deadly force by police….What Ferguson did was create a call that anyone who is reasonable would agree with: We need to get information when an agent of the state seeks to put a bullet in a citizen’s body.”

Just because Klinger takes what sounds like a reasonable, even-handed position, doesn’t mean that his views are welcome by others in the arena.  After an appearance on a public radio talk show in July, he got hateful emails and voice mails “calling me a racist, a member of the KKK and saying ‘I’m going to call your boss because you are obviously not qualified to train police officers.’”

Klinger shakes his head at the vitriol but he doesn’t ignoreit.  He fears that a rising level of anger expressed by some Black Lives Matter protesters could inspire an increase in violence against police.

 “The rhetoric of Black Lives Matter: absolutely it matters,” he says.  “I tend to believe what you tell me. If you tell me you want me to die, I am going to worry about that. So it sets the police on edge. The second thing is that it detracts from the important work.

“When you have a person praising the acts of a mass murderer in Dallas who killed five police officers who are going on Twitter and Instagram and saying this guy is my hero and you are standing in front of police officers….and saying I wish you were dead, you need to die, that doesn’t make me very optimistic.”


Ferguson effect?

Klinger and his fellow criminologists at UMSL also worry about the increase in serious crimes in some major cities, including St. Louis, Kansas City, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Chicago. 

Richard Rosenfeld, the UMSL criminologist, had initially been skeptical claims of a so-called “Ferguson effect” on crime, said Klinger.  But Rosenfeld documents in a recent report the sharp increase in homicides in big cities with large African-American populations.

St. Louis ranked 10th among the major cities in the absolute number of increases in homicides - 29, which is an 18 percent increase.  Baltimore, at the top of the list, had an absolute increase of 127, which is 58 percent.  Cleveland registered an increase of 57 homicides, a 90 percent increase and Milwaukee 61, which is a 72 percent increase.

Rosenfeld said that there are various possible explanations. Two could be Ferguson effects - that police have pulled back from aggressive policing or, alternatively, that black inner city populations are more hostile to police.  Other possible explanations are the increase in the heroin and the release of prisoners into the population.


By the numbers

Klinger praises the Washington Post’s data analysis last year that showed 987 people were killed by police officers in 2015.  (The project won a Pulitzer prize.) Britain’s Guardian paper conducted a similar count.  The numbers are the first reliable count of the number of citizens killed by police.  Official reporting to the FBI is voluntary.  The Post’s total is about twice what the FBI had reported in past years. 

There is controversy, however, over how the interpret the numbers.  Klinger points out that a majority of those killed were white.  The Post figures show whites were 50 percent of the 987 victims and blacks 26 percent.  By comparison, whites are 62 percent of the population and blacks 13 percent.

So compared to population, blacks are more likely to be killed than whites. But Klinger points out that the 26 percent rate for blacks shot to death by police is almost the same as the percent of blacks who are suspects in violent crimes.  “So the racial disproportionality of death at the hands of police is consistent with racial disproportionality of involvement in violent crime,” he says.

The Post project focused on the high rate at which unarmed blacks are killed by police. The Post found at unarmed black men were six or seven time more likely to be killed by police than unarmed white men. The Post concluded that the disparity helped explain “why outrage continues to simmer a year after Ferguson.”

But Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute has looked below the data and concluded that a number of the “unarmed” black victims was exaggerated because a number of them still posed a danger because they were fighting for guns or attacking police with their own equipment.

Klinger and fellow researchers examined all 230 police shootings in the City of St. Louis from 2003-2012. In half the cases, police missed when they fired at suspects. In 37 cases, police killed the civilian – 30 of those were African-Americans. That means 81 percent of those killed in police shootings were black in a city that is 50 percent black.

Klinger found that the single factor that correlated most closely to the police shootings was the level of firearms violence in the area where the shooting occurred. This factor was more important than race or the poverty of the area.


A shooting at 23

 Klinger was a 23-year-old LA cop when he killed an African-American suspect who was trying to kill his partner.

“My partner and I were on opposite sides of the street during a barricaded gunman situation and my partner had gone to the other side of the street of evacuate a citizen,” Klinger recalls.  “An assailant with the butcher knife “knocked him to the ground after stabbing him in the chest and was trying to stab my partner again with this large butcher knife through the neck…..I tried to grab the knife but couldn’t. I shot the guy from probably two feet away. …He died a few minutes later.”

One thing that people don’t realize is how many times officers do not use deadly force when they would be legally justified to use it.  Klinger quickly ticks off 10 examples from his brief police career, all involved suspects had guns, including some who drew them from a jacket or a waistband before dropping them to the ground.

During his decades of research he has interviewed 300 officers and found that many, like he, can tick off instances when they did not use deadly force even though the could have legally. 

In research at Washington State he has put citizens and police officers through simulated scenarios where they fire a laser beam.  He has found that the research subjects were less likely to shoot black suspects than white suspects who didn’t represent a threat.  In addition where the potential targets did represent a threat, there was a slightly longer delay before shooting a black target with a gun than a white one.

“There may be the subconscious notion that there is a price to pay for inappropriately shooting a black person is greater than white,” he said.

A recent study at Harvard came up with a similar finding. It found that when officers are using non-lethal force they were 50 percent more likely to be rough with Hispanics and blacks than whites.  But there was no difference between the use of deadly force based on race.

But for Klinger, the jury is out.  He urges that people turn down the rhetoric and stop jumping to instant conclusions based on spotty video of incidents.  And most of all, he wants more data - lots more data - so that policy makers can make decisions based on facts and not angry emotions.

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