November 15, 2018

San Francisco Police: Nothing to See Here

The San Francisco Police Officer’s Association has been running a series of radio ads for the past few months, trying to counter claims that some officers act out of racial bias. You can hear the latest one on their website, “> Washington Post study, saying in defense of the police that “75% of police shootings result from attacks on police officers or other citizens.” My first thought was, “Wait, that means 25% of police shootings happen when nobody is being attacked, right? And the Association thinks it’s good to shoot that many people who aren’t attacking anyone?”

So I found the Washington Post statistics page linked above, which comes with a handy-dandy feature that lets you click on different demographic and other information to slice and dice the data, as well as a very brief summary of the circumstances of each shooting. The statistics, like life circumstances, are a little fuzzy. In some cases, people are listed as not attacking, but they did hit and/or struggle with an officer. To be fair, when a person hits an officer or is struggling with one, the officer may have reason to fear the suspect will try to take his/her gun and use it against the officer.

There are also quite a few cases in which the suspect was armed, often with a knife, sometimes with a gun or other weapon, so depending on what the suspect was doing at the time, they may have been threatening the officer or others in a way that made the police feel they had to shoot.

But then I looked at some of the statistics by race. Nationally, 397 out of 739 (or 53%) of the people shot by police while attacking someone were white, but only 38% of those who were shot while they weren’t attacking were white. In California, those numbers are 35% and 21%, respectively. Why is the percentage of people shot while not attacking so much higher for people of color than it is for people who are attacking?

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean the shootings in which nobody was attacking were all racially motivated, nor do we have statistics for just the SFPD to see whether their numbers show the same pattern. What it does show, however, is a disturbing disparity between the racial makeup of those who are shot while attacking and those who were shot while not attacking. It does raise the question, “Do officers use more de-escalation techniques when they encounter white suspects who are not attacking anyone, and is that why fewer of them are shot by the police?”

Obviously, the Association saw the numbers in the study, since they referenced it in their radio ad. Their duty is to protect and to serve everyone in the City. Why are they so unwilling to consider whether there might be a problem, and try to find a way to address it, rather than hiding their collective head in the sand?

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