Police shootings fall as new training and policies prevail

Police are less likely to shoot, and less likely to be shot, in major American cities than 15 years ago. Then, police in Atlanta were fatally shooting more people than the police of any other big city in the country, compared by population and size of police department. As in many cities, leadership and the police force were mainly white, and most of those shot were black.

Since then, even though the overall rate of violence and murder has grown, police killings have been cut in half in the major cities, according to a study released last week by the Crime Control Institute in Washington, D.C.

In New York City, for example, police killed 87 people in 1971, and 32 in 1984. In St. Paul, Minn., police did not kill anyone from 1978 through 1984, the last year of the study.

During the last 15 years, the number of police killed by citizens has dropped by two-thirds.

The story of how the change came about in Atlanta is similar to that of other cities. In 1971, in big cities, seven blacks were killed by police for every one white. By 1978, only 2.5 blacks were killed for every white, according to an Urban League study, even though the share of blacks and whites arrested changed little.

Many of the Atlanta police shootings in the early 1970s took place during stake-outs, where police would await armed robbers or burglars. The shootings were frequent enough and controversial enough that Maynard Jackson became Atlanta's first black mayor in 1974 with police shootings and brutality as a campaign issue.

He appointed A. Reginald Eaves, also black, to be public safety commissioner. When Mr. Eaves took office, 18 percent of the officers were black. When he left in 1978, the figure had risen to 52 percent.

``But that didn't make the transition,'' he says. He had to fire black officers as well as white, and heavily fine others, to show he was serious in his policy of using no more force than is necessary for an arrest. Shooting fleeing suspects ended. Shooting became justifiable only when the lives of the officer or third parties were threatened.

As the police shootings fell, so did the shootings of police. Lawrence Sherman, who did the study and is president of the Crime Control Institute, sees no evidence that the tightened shooting policy has increased crime.

In Atlanta, killings by police have dropped by two-thirds, in comparison to population and to the size of the department. A more revealing measure, according to Mr. Sherman, is the number of killings by police compared with the number of total homicides in the city. This figure has fallen by 43 percent since the early 1970s.

Here, as in city after city, the drop in killings by police is attributed to changes in policies and attitudes in police departments, often at least partly a result of growing black concern and voting strength. Not until 1985 did the US Supreme Court rule that the shooting of fleeing suspects is unconstitutional. Most big city shooting policies were already in accord.

Policy, however, is strictly academic unless trained into police reflexes. Most shoot-outs begin and end well inside of three seconds, offering little chance for reflection on a weighty, life-or-death decision.

The speed and inconvenience of these harsh decisions is made clear in one room of the Atlanta Police Academy.

While an officer-in-training stands watching the wall from across the room, gun holstered, a projector flashes scenarios onto the wall that require him to shoot or not shoot his laser-equipped handgun at the images on the screen with life-like speed and accuracy.

Yet, any hesitation or lack of preparedness, or bad aim, can end in the quick shooting of the officer. And overanxiousness often results in the shooting of people armed only with cameras or tire irons.

A police officer may never pull his trigger in the line of duty. Yet the most dangerous situations for the officer are the most mundane -- vehicle pull-overs and domestic disputes.

Until a few years ago, fire-arm training meant simply shooting at paper targets on the range. Now, says Sgt. Mike Baker, an instructor, ``training is to let officers know they have options other than shooting.''

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