Since 2015, police in the United States have shot and killed an average of 988 people a year. This is based on reporting by the Washington Post, which began maintaining a national database of such incidents after the controversial 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Without more analysis, the fact that 5,000 Americans lost their lives to armed agents of the state in half a decade is undoubtedly concerning. But context is important, and viewing the number of fatal police encounters in its proper context undercuts the claim—central to the argument advanced by Rizer and Mooney in their thoughtful article—that America has a “police violence problem.” This is not to say that police never use excessive force, nor is it to assert that there is no room for improvement in police training practices that might, at least at the margins, reduce the number of fatal police shootings and other uses of force.
However, to the extent the police violence problem is overstated, so too will be the potential impact of any policy levers pulled to address that problem. This is important because the advisability of a particular policy change will depend in part on how much the change will help if adopted.
Rizer and Mooney propose five policy recommendations to reduce police violence:
- Emphasize and Support De-escalation in Use-of-Force Policy and Training
- Require Greater Transparency Around Department Use-of-Force Policies
- Study and Promote Successful Field Training Officer Programs
- Limit Police Acquisition and Use of Military Resources from the 1033 Program
- Ensure Greater Accountability for Misuse of Force
These recommendations are measured and well-intentioned. But Rizer and Mooney overestimate their potential impact. That overestimation—which varies in degree as to each of the recommendations made—becomes more apparent upon a closer examination of what the available data and literature tell us we can expect from acting on them.
This response will begin by placing police use-of-force data in their proper context. Doing so casts doubt on Rizer and Mooney’s assertion that there exists a significant “police violence problem” in America. It will then assess Rizer and Mooney’s policy recommendations, offering specific critiques and highlighting competing analyses of the underlying issues.
Rafael A. Mangual is a fellow and deputy director for legal policy at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. This piece was adapted from City Journal. He is the author of the recent Manhattan Institute issue brief, Reforming New York’s Bail Reform: A Public Safety-Minded Proposal. Follow him on Twitter here.
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