To Move Forward After Dallas Ambush, We Must Explore Why Police Use Force

Nearly one year ago, four Dallas Police Department officers and a Dallas Area Rapid Transit officer were killed in an ambush that also left several other DPD, DART and El Centro College officers injured. Although we may never know the complete set of motives behind that tragedy, it has been reported that a critical piece of former Army veteran Micah Johnson's motivation was his anger over the tragic killings of several African-American men at the hands of white police officers around the country.The citizens of Dallas responded with compassion for the 3,000-plus men and women of all races and ethnicities who work to protect our city, its citizens and its visitors. And the tragedy helped spur conversations in the community and among police regarding transparency and understanding of the processes that have led to unnecessary deaths.If we are to try to make sense of the Dallas ambush and the terrible events that precipitated it over the years, it is important to know how often and why police use force. We must better understand the frustrations perceived and experienced by communities and the police. Officers are sometimes called to tense situations and attacked by citizens. But we also have found that officers who struggle with impulse control in other areas of their lives, such as finances or relationships, are more prone to use violence in their jobs.Let's start with some facts about use of force, especially because what we think we know may not be accurate.1. Use of force includes a wide range of actions. The use-of-force continuum developed by police departments and researchers starts with low levels of force (verbal commands) and escalates to middle levels (holds) to intermediate (Taser deployment), and finally to the most extreme and potentially fatal use of force (firearm discharge). The most severe types of force are used the least frequently, while the lowest are used the most often. Over the course of their careers, the majority of officers never draw their firearms on people, much less shoot, and a much smaller number kill someone. Recent research that I co-authored in the American Journal of Public Health examined less-than-lethal use of force in the Dallas Police Department and the results corroborated the same pattern of findings reviewed above: increasing levels of force were used less frequently than the lower levels of force. According to the Dallas Police Department, its officers were involved in 224 shootings from 2003 to 2016, and the majority involved the officers shooting and missing.2. The majority of officers do not go on patrol thinking they will use deadly force. But they understand that they may have to use force if the situation calls for it. Most calls police respond to end peacefully, without any force being used.Yet, sometimes police encounter citizens in difficult circumstances, and officers must make instantaneous decisions without having all the information necessary. It is much like driving on Central Expressway at 70 mph and trying to decide if the driver approaching you is going to cut you off. Or when a baseball umpire needs to make a call on a ball or strike. Time is not on the officer's side. Officers cannot hit pause to go read a manual or look at a replay. I don't mean to trivialize these decisions, but to highlight their complexity.3. Various factors influence when police use force and the severity of such force. These factors tend to include whether a crime is in progress, whether citizens are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, whether bystanders are present, and the general behavior of citizens. Police often respond to a crime in progress or recently committed, a domestic assault incident, a robbery in progress or bar fight. In many of these situations, citizens are angry -- but not necessarily with the police. When police show up, they sometimes get injured.But police use of force is not solely due to how citizens act. Officer characteristics are related to use of deadly force, too. In a new study published in Police Quarterly using data from the Philadelphia Police Department, my colleagues and I found that officers who had difficulty in controlling their impulses, which we measured through a survey that assessed problems with officers' finances and interpersonal relationships, for example, exhibited a higher likelihood of discharging their firearms.4. Estimates reported by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund show that, with the exception of 2011 and the 9/11 attacks, the number of officer fatalities has been steadily decreasing since the early 1970s. For example, in 2016, 135 officers were killed in the line of duty out of more than a million officers nationwide.Some commentators have argued that assaults against police increased after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. Yet, a new study by Arizona State University criminal justice professor Ed Maguire and his colleagues provides no support for what some have termed the Ferguson Effect on the number of police officers killed.Other commentators have claimed that police have stepped back from law enforcement and that some cities are experiencing an increase in crime as a result. Yet, findings from new research led by University of Colorado Boulder sociology professor David Pyrooz and his colleagues indicate that, for the most part, there has been no Ferguson Effect on crime rates in large U.S. cities. Thus, it seems that citizens and officers are no more in danger today than they were in the summer of 2014.It is also important to recognize that there is still much to learn about the use of force. Much of what we do not understand well involves the subtler context of the community's interaction with the police, especially from the perspectives of the community members, including minority communities as the research of my Rutgers University colleague Rod Brunson has shown. There are subtly different aspects of excessive -- but not deadly -- force that are often reflected in the circumstances and not easily measured in the data. This is a different question, and one that is of greater concern to many civic groups. We also must examine not just the nature of police-community interactions but whether these interactions vary across different types of communities.It may be time to get past the divisive views that cops are running rampant using force or that citizens hate cops, as neither narrative is constructive or based in factual evidence. What is needed instead is recognition that social control depends upon both citizens and officers trusting in and working with one another to keep our cities safe and secure. Building equitable, just and thriving communities requires that citizens and the governments that represent their interests trust one another.Police departments and citizens must develop and foster partnerships throughout the community. The President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing initiated by Barack Obama suggested that one important step toward restoring public trust in the police is recognizing the role that policing has historically played in injustice and discrimination. But it is also the case that a cooperative relationship between the community and the police isn't a White thing, an African-American thing, nor a Hispanic thing. It's a human thing. In a complicated, social world, we all need to recognize and try to understand each other.As with just about every profession and organization, police departments need to do as good a job as possible to recruit a diverse and qualified workforce. Officers should undergo rigorous training that includes when to shoot, how to de-escalate a situation, and how to recognize their own implicit bias.The adoption of body-worn cameras may also alert both officers and citizens that their interactions are being monitored. A recent study by Texas State University professor Wesley Jennings and his colleagues shows that the use of cameras led to a 54.3 percent decrease in use of force, while another study led by Cambridge University criminology professor Barak Ariel and his colleagues indicated that cameras were associated with a 93 percent drop in complaints made against the police.Additionally, police departments should make use of force data available to the public. On all of these fronts, the Dallas Police Department has emerged as a national leader. Beginning in 2012, then Dallas Police Chief David Brown initiated a series of changes to the department's use of force of policy, including posting data on officer-involved shootings, creating a community engagement team, and notifying the FBI Civil Rights Office of any officer-involved shooting. Most recently, the DPD has started to outfit officers with body-worn cameras.All of these efforts hold promise to increase trust, transparency, legitimacy and accountability. Establishing external civilian review boards could also be an important step toward a more collaborative relationship between citizens and the police. And above all else, if officers are found to have violated policy, then they should be reprimanded and punished accordingly.Citizens are critical too. Citizens must be champions for their communities. They must follow the mantra we hear at sporting events, movie theaters and airports regarding the threat of terrorism: If you see something, say something. Communities that are characterized by what Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson has termed collective efficacy, or the shared sense of informal social control, tend to have better cohesion and much lower crime.Let's not be naïve that citizens or police alone can solve the factors that give rise to crime, whether economic, familial, political or individual. We live in an age when 140 characters and 20-second video clips capture our imagination, for good and for bad. Perceptions about police and citizens should be based on the most accurate and available of information. Anything less would be a shame.Alex R. Piquero is the Ashbel Smith professor of criminology and associate dean for graduate programs at the University of Texas at Dallas. Email: apiquero@utdallas.eduWhat's your view?Got an opinion about this issue? 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