Tag Archives: Police

Racial disparities in police shootings in the US are even bigger than previously thought

An analysis of four US states finds that when you look at non-fatal shootings, the racial disparities are even greater than in fatal shootings.

According to data compiled by the Washington Post, police officers shot and killed 1001 people in the US in 2019, and 936 in 2020. Per capita, the rate of deaths for Black Americans is twice as high as that for white Americans. This is backed by studies that have found a consistent racial bias in police shootings that cannot be explained by differences in local crime rates.

However, most studies only look at fatal shootings. Not only does this data eliminate an important part of police shootings, but fatality can also be influenced by other types of factors (such as if police officers administered first aid or whether a hospital is nearby). Justin Nix of the University of Nebraska Omaha and John Shjarback of Rowan University in New Jersey wanted to analyze this data and see if they can get a more comprehensive picture of the bias.

The problem is, most states don’t even gather data on non-fatal police shootings. So they focused on four states that do gather it: Florida, Texas, Colorado, and California. They then used statistical analysis to account for demographics and other factors that could be influencing the data.

Overall, they found that Black civilians were more likely to be shot than white civilians, and the racial bias is even more pronounced than in fatal shootings. For instance, in California, Black people are 3.08 times more likely to be fatally shot, but 3.91 times more likely to be non-fatally shot. Overall, the risk of Black people suffering a non-fatal shooting was greater than that of a fatal shooting in all the analyzed four states. California actually had the smallest difference out of the four states, while in Colorado and Florida, Black people are over five times more likely to be shot than white people, the analysis found.

Hispanic people were also more likely to be shot than white people in California or Colorado, but in Texas and Florida, the differences were negligible. Here’s how the Black-white and Hispanic-white disparities compare across all four states:

Image credits: Nix, Shjarback, 2021, PLOS ONE.

There are still shortcomings to this study (for instance, there is no data on the number of rounds fired and the data is reported by the police without external verification), but overall, this paints a compelling picture of existing bias among US police shootings.

This could be better studied, the researchers say if more states would record and report data on non-fatal shootings.

“We currently have no comprehensive national data on police firearm discharges. Our study suggests there are likely hundreds of people non-fatally injured by police gunfire each year – a disproportionate share of them Black,” the authors note.

The study has been published in PLOS.

Want to seal marijuana odor? Pack it in double vacuum-sealed bags, study says

Credit: Pixabay.

In 2017, a Colorado State Trooper pulled over a car to the side of Interstate 70 for a minor traffic infraction. The police officer, who works on highway narcotic smuggling, claims he immediately sensed a strong marijuana odor once he approached the car. He proceeded to conduct a probable cause search based on the strong smell and “other indicators”, which revealed two vacuum duffle bags filled with 52 pounds of marijuana, a wad of thousands of dollars in cash, and a secondary phone.

Later, in court, the defendant pleaded guilty for possession with intent to distribute. However, he challenged the motive of the search and did so in a highly unusual way for this kind of offense. His lawyer hired Dr. Avery Gilbert, a self-described “smell scientist” and “sensory psychologist”, and Dr. Joseph Diverdi, a professor of chemistry at Colorado State University, who examined the evidence and took samples of air inside the evidence bags holding the vacuum packs.

“There’s long tables just filled with bagged weed. I’d never seen anything like it,” Gilberg told Leafly. The marijuana was still in the double vacuum-sealed bags. “Coming as close as we could to sniffing those packages, I couldn’t smell a damn thing.”

In the lab, the two researchers examined the air samples with a gas chromatography machine, focusing on the concentrations of six terpenes known to give marijuana its conspicuous odor. The examination confirmed the researchers’ initial subjective assessment of the sealed marijuana — the odor molecules were in a far too low concentration to be detected by people.

Although the case was over (the man found with the marijuana in his possession received a two-year deferred sentence, a fine, and community service), the two researchers thought that marijuana odor concealment merits more scientific attention.

Back in the lab, they set up an experiment with 21 participants familiar with the smell of cannabis. The participants had to select the correct packaging that contained marijuana from ten sample pairs. Four different packaging methods were used: Ziploc bags, thin plastic produce bags, pop-top canisters, and a vacuum-sealed heavy plastic bag inside another vacuum-sealed bag. An open glass bowl was also used to act as a control.

The participants immediately recognized the package containing marijuana when it placed in an open glass bowl, the Ziploc bag, and the produce bag. The pop-top dispensary canister yielded mixed results.

However, vacuum-sealed marijuana seems to have been the least conspicuous out of all the packaging methods. According to the results, which were published in the journal Science & Justice, the “material packaged in doubly vacuum-sealed plastic was correctly identified at rates no different from chance.”

Since the experiment showed that people with experience handling marijuana had great difficulty identifying it in a double-sealed vacuum bag, what would be the odds that the officer could smell it (from outside the car while the bag was inside a suitcase)? That’s extremely unlikely.

The findings “may help address issues involving the detectability of cannabis aroma in law enforcement and other scenarios,” the researchers concluded.

Lego police.

Police officers face and dole out more violence when their weapons aren’t concealed

Taser-toting police officers use more force than their unarmed counterparts, a new study reveals — but it’s not necessarily their choice.

Lego police.

Image via Pixabay.

New research studying the activity of London police officers show that those carrying visible electroshock (and likely any) weapons were more likely to be assaulted. Overall, they had to use force during these interventions 48% more often than on unarmed shifts, the study explains. While ‘use of force’ includes everything from restraint and handcuffing to CS spray, the Tasers themselves were only fired twice during the year-long study period, the authors note.

The blade itself

“We found that officers are more likely to be assaulted when carrying electroshock weaponry, and more likely to apply force,” said lead researcher Dr Barak Ariel from Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology.

“There was no increase in injury of suspects or complaints, suggesting it was not the police instigating hostilities. The presence of Tasers appears to provoke a pattern where suspects become more aggressive toward officers, who in turn respond more forcefully,” he said.

The team says these results likely stem from the ‘weapons effect‘: a psychological phenomenon in which sight of a weapon increases aggressive behavior. This aggression, however, didn’t come from the policemen themselves.

The team worked with the City of London police force, whose members are responsible for policing the Square Mile business district (in the center of London). The force also holds national responsibility for Economic Crime and prioritizes counter-terrorism, violent crime, and public order due to its central location. This force was the first in England and Wales to test “extended” use of Tasers in frontline officers — and Dr. Ariel and her team used the chance to carry out their experiment.

Dr Ariel’s team (randomly) allocated a Taser-armed officer to 400 frontline shifts and compared their results to 400 unarmed shifts carried out over the same period. A total of 5,981 incidents occurred during the study.

Overall, squads carrying Tasers saw a 48% higher use of force than unarmed ones. The team also reports seeing a “contagion effect,” whereby unarmed officers accompanying Taser carriers used force 19% more often than those on Taser-free (control) shifts. Taser-carrying shifts recorded six physical assaults against police, compared to just three on the unarmed shifts. It may seem small, but the team argues that it is a worrying trend (it is, after all, a doubling in the number of assaults).

Another surprising finding was that the actual use of electroshock weapons was minimal over the study period, despite the increased hostility. Just nine “deholsterings” were recorded during the study, only two of which resulted in electric shocks applied to a suspect.

“For many, a weapon is a deterrence. However, some individuals interpret the sight of a weapon as an aggressive cue — a threat that creates a hostile environment,” Dr Ariel said. “The response is consequently a ‘fight or flight’ dilemma that can result in a behavioural manifestation of aggression and assault. This is what we think we are seeing in our Taser experiment.”

“It would not be surprising to find that serious or violent offenders fit this criteria, especially young males — the very type of suspect that is regularly in direct contact with frontline police.”

The team also offers a simple solution to bypass this effect on the ground: conceal the weapons. Such a decision would take very little money to implement while reducing the weapons effect seen in the study — without leaving officers weaponless.

“This conclusion could be generalised to all types of police armoury, including the lethal firearms carried by police officers. If the presence of weapons can lead to aggression by suspects, so its concealment should be able to reduce aggression and increase officer safety.”

David Lawes, Chief Superintendent of the City of London Police and study co-author said that the organization is testing whether new holsters or a change in the weapons’ position would help limit the weapon effect. The City of London Police is also instructing its officers on the findings of the previous study.

The paper “The ‘Less-Than-Lethal Weapons Effect’ — Introducing TASERs to Routine Police Operations in England and Wales: A Randomized Controlled Trial” has been published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior.

Police militarization doesn’t bring more safety and might do more harm than good

A new study sheds some much-needed light on a controversial topic: police militarization. According to the new research, giving the police more weapons doesn’t have much benefit, and it can severely weaken public trust.

SWAT team preparing for an exercise. Image credits: Smallman12q / Oregon Department of Transportation.

In 1966, Abraham Maslow, one of history most renowned psychologists, put forth an idea called the “law of the instrument” — essentially a cognitive bias, an over-reliance on a familiar and often forceful tool. He summed it thusly: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Humans, however, are not nails — so does it make sense to use the police as a hammer?

When an armed police intervention takes place, something is already wrong. But sometimes, the intervention itself makes things worse. This month marks the four-year anniversary of protests over the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, an incident which ignited massive unrest in the local community and was met with an armed police intervention. The police established curfews and deployed riot squads, using tear gas and often violence to cull down any protests — be they violent or peaceful. In the aftermath of the events, it became clear that the police strongly antagonized the local population, sparking a national debate about police militarization and the use of force.

Proponents of police militarization say that it can stop ongoing violencewe or even prevent it. Opponents say that these tactics are disproportionately used on minorities and create mistrust between the people and the police — a mistrust which can easily escalate and lead to additional violence and uncontrollable situations. A study published by Jonathan Mummolo, assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, found evidence that supports the latter.

Unrest in Ferguson (Wikipedia).

Mummolo carried out a mixed study involving both existing data and survey experiments. Particularly, he looked at administrative crime and officer safety data, records of when and where militarized police units were created and deployed, and what the results were.

His conclusions are stark: militarized policing does not lead to less violent crime or less violence against police officers. Furthermore, it does reduce police reputation, which makes it more difficult for officers to carry out their missions in the long run. He compared the deployments of SWAT teams with the number of violent crimes and officers who were killed or injured.

Results showed that creating more SWAT teams and increasing SWAT deployments had little to no benefit in reducing violent crime and increasing officer safety. While results may not hold for all agencies and all situations, it’s a strong indication that militarization isn’t the wonder-tool some believe it to be.

“The routine use of militarized police tactics by local agencies threatens to further the historic tensions between marginalized groups and the state with no detectable public safety benefit,” said Mummolo, who is on the faculty at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Department of Politics.

Mummolo’s study went on to test another hypothesis associated with militarization: the disproportionate application on minorities. His analysis was only carried out on the state of Maryland, but within the state, he found that black residents face a more pronounced risk of experiencing militarized policing — even after controlling for social factors and local crime rates.

Lastly, Mummolo wanted to see if militarized interventions reduce public trust in the police. Results show that citizens react negatively to the appearance of militarized police, and are subsequently less likely to want police patrols in their neighborhoods.

However, Mummolo says that the conclusion of the study is not that militarized tactics need to be eliminated from police tactics. SWAT teams, for instance, are an important tool for emergency situations when no other alternative is available.

“Restricting their use to those situations may improve perceptions of the police among citizens,” Mummolo said.

This isn’t the first study to suggest that police militarization brings forth unwanted consequences: in 2017, a study found a statistically significant positive relationship between militarization of the police and fatalities from officer-involved shootings.

The study has been published in PNAS.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

More than half of police killings in the United States were not officially documented

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A disturbing new study reports that half of all people killed by police in 2015 in the United States were severely undercounted. Harvard researchers compiled data from media reports in order to find the misreported police killings, arriving at a harrowing tally of 1,166 fatalities for 2015.

“To effectively address the problem of law enforcement-related deaths, the public needs better data about who is being killed, where, and under what circumstances,” said Justin Feldman, doctoral student at Harvard Chan School and lead author of the study, in a public statement. “But we also found that a different approach — compiling data from media reports — can help solve this problem.”

This is the first study to measure the undercounting of police-related deaths, providing the most accurate count to date. The main issue that prevents us from reliably following police killings is the lack of a nation-wide system that tracks all law-enforcement related fatalities. As such, the Harvard scientists had to turn to two incomplete datasets. One is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s National Vital Statistics System (NVSS), which documents fatalities based on state death certificate data. Since 1949, the NVSS features a category called “legal intervention” which coroners can fill under cause of death. The other is a dataset compiled by British media outlet The Guardian called ‘The Counted’ which tallies police killings based on news reports and crowdsourced information.

The media was able to count 93 percent of all police killings. The government barely managed to count half

Researchers looked at the number of people who appeared on The Guardian list only, the NVSS list only, and both lists, then, using statistical tools, ascertained the degree of overlap. They estimate that there were 1,166 law-enforcement related fatalities in 2015.

Some of the key findings from the new study:

  • The main reason why police killings were undercounted was due to the coroner failing to mention police involvement on the death certificate.
  • There were 599 deaths reported in The Guardian only, 36 reported in the NVSS only, 487 reported in both lists.
  • The NVSS documented 44.9% of the total number of deaths and The Counted documented 93.1%.
  • Undercounting of police-related deaths varied widely across states. For instance, nearly all of the 17 police-related deaths in Oregon were counted, but none of the 36 such deaths in Oklahoma were
  • Misclassification rates for police-related deaths topped 60% among several groups: people under age 18, blacks, people killed by something other than a firearm (particularly Tasers, which accounted for 46 deaths), and people killed in low-income counties.

The authors caution that the nation needs laws requiring police to report all law-enforcement related casualties to public health authorities. The new study also shows that news media reports can be used by state officials to identify police-related fatalities in order to more accurately track such incidents. This shouldn’t be too difficult seeing how a 2014 study of homicides showed that 99 percent were recorded accurately on death certificates. The problem, as such, seems to be unique to law enforcement involvement. Right now, this gross failure to accurately report police killings is unacceptable and, hopefully, the Harvard study will serve as a wake-up call to policymakers.

“As with any public health outcome or exposure, the only way to understand the magnitude of the problem, and whether it is getting better or worse, requires that data be uniformly, validly, and reliably obtained throughout the U.S.,” said Nancy Krieger, professor of social epidemiology at Harvard Chan School and senior author of the study. “Our results show our country is falling short of accurately monitoring deaths due to law enforcement and work is needed to remedy this problem.”

Scientific reference: “Quantifying underreporting of law- enforcement-related deaths in United States vital statistics and news-media-based data sources: A capture-recapture analysis,” Justin M. Feldman, Sofia Gruskin, Brent A. Coull, Nancy Krieger, PLoS Medicine, October 10, 2017, doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002399.

Machine learning could solve the US’s police violence issue

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department of North Carolina is piloting a new machine-learning system which it hopes will combat the rise of police violence. Police brutality has been a growing issue in US in recent years.

The system combs through the police’s staff records to identify officers with a high risk of causing “adverse events” — such as racial profiling or unwarranted shootings.

Image credits Jagz Mario / Flickr.

A University of Chicago team is helping the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD keep an eye on their police officers, and prevent cases of police violence. The team feeds data from the police’s staff records into a machine learning system that tries to spot risk factors for unprofessional conduct. Once a high-risk individual is identified, the department steps in to prevent any actual harm at the hands of the officer.

Officers are people too, and they can be subjected to a lot of stress in their line of work. The system is meant to single out officers who might behave aggressively under stress. All the information on an individual’s record — details of previous misconduct, gun use, their deployment history, how many suicide or domestic violence calls they have responded to, et cetera — is fed into the system. The idea is to prevent incidents in which officers who are stressed can behave aggressively, such as the case in Texas where an officer pulled his gun on children at a pool party after responding to two suicide calls earlier that shift.

“Right now the systems that claim to do this end up flagging the majority of officers,” says Rayid Ghani, who leads the Chicago team. “You can’t really intervene then.”

But so far, the system had some pretty impressive results. It retrospectively flagged 48 out of 83 adverse incidents that happened between 2005 and now – 12 per cent more than Charlotte-Mecklenberg’s existing early intervention system. It had a false positive rate – officers flagged as having a high risk by the system that didn’t behave aggressively – was 32 per cent lower than the existing systems.

Ghani’s team is currently testing the system with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Knoxville Police Department in Tennessee. They will present the results of their pilot system at the International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining in San Francisco later this month.

So the system works, but exactly what should be done after an official has been flagged as a potential risk is still up for debate. The team is still working with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police to find the best solution.

“The most appropriate intervention to prevent misconduct by an officer could be a training course, a discussion with a manager or changing their beat for a week,” Ghani adds.

Whatever the best course of action is, Ghani is confident that it should be implemented by humans, not a computer system.

Or adorable toy police cars, at least.
Image via pixabay

“I would not want any of those to be automated,” he says. “As long as there is a human in the middle starting a conversation with them, we’re reducing the chance for things to go wrong.”

Frank Pasquale, who studies the social impact of algorithms at the University of Maryland, is cautiously optimistic.

“In many walks of life I think this algorithmic ranking of workers has gone too far – it troubles me,” he says. “But in the context of the police, I think it could work.”

He believes that while such a system for tackling police misconduct is new, it’s likely that older systems created the problem in the first place.

“The people behind this are going to say it’s all new,” he says. “But it could be seen as an effort to correct an earlier algorithmic failure. A lot of people say that the reason you have so much contact between minorities and police is because the CompStat system was rewarding officers who got the most arrests.”

CompStat, short for Computer Statistics, is a police management and accountability system, used to implement the “broken windows” theory of policing — the idea that punishing minor infractions like public drinking and vandalism severely helps create an atmosphere of law and order, and will thus bring down serious crime. Many police researchers have suggested that the approach has led to the current dangerous tension between police and minority communities.

Pasquale warns that the University of Chicago system is not infallible. Just like any other system, it’s going to suffer from biased data — for example, a black police officer in a white community will likely get more complaints than a white colleague, he says, because the police can be subject to racism, too. Giving officers some channel to seek redress will be important.

“This can’t just be an automatic number cruncher.”