OPINION: Reducing police fatal force requires standards, accountability

In this June 12, 2020, file photo from a screen grab taken from body camera video provided by the Atlanta Police Department, Rayshard Brooks speaks with Officer Garrett Rolfe in the parking lot of a Wendy's restaurant in Atlanta.  New research from a Georgia State criminologist looks at the use of police fatal force across six subgroups. Understanding the sources of racialized and gendered police killings is key to reducing the incidents. (Atlanta Police Department via AP, File)
Caption
In this June 12, 2020, file photo from a screen grab taken from body camera video provided by the Atlanta Police Department, Rayshard Brooks speaks with Officer Garrett Rolfe in the parking lot of a Wendy's restaurant in Atlanta. New research from a Georgia State criminologist looks at the use of police fatal force across six subgroups. Understanding the sources of racialized and gendered police killings is key to reducing the incidents. (Atlanta Police Department via AP, File)

In June 2020, Rayshard Brooks died from two gunshot wounds in the back as he ran from police at a local Wendy’s restaurant. Brooks had fallen asleep in a car sitting in the drive-thru lane, but when police were called to the scene and attempted to arrest him for drunken driving, the encounter took a violent turn. Brooks broke free and struck an officer before grabbing the officer’s Taser, pointing it in an officer’s direction and running away.

The killing quickly became high-profile, setting off widespread unrest in the city. The Wendy’s was torched and eventually razed. Garrett Rolfe, the officer who shot Brooks, was fired the day after the shooting and charged with murder among other counts. The other officer on the scene, Devin Brosnan, was charged with aggravated assault and three violations of his oath of office.

Rolfe was reinstated in May and has since been placed on administrative leave with pay. The criminal case against him is still pending.

The incident was another example of the well-documented pattern of police killings that disproportionally impact Black men and youths, but there is a broader narrative surrounding the risk of fatal encounters with police that isn’t often examined. Depending on the circumstances, police use of fatal force can impact different populations in dramatically different ways, according to new research from Georgia State University.

“Most of the research on fatal force examines it for the total population or is emphasized by race alone or gender alone. We examine race, ethnic and gender subgroups intersectionally because there is a lack of research on fatal force against women, particularly black women who ae at highest risk of being killed by police among their gender group,” said Shytierra Gaston, a criminologist at Georgia State who led the research.

Gaston’s research offers important insight into situations where it may be beneficial to reduce police contact and subsequently reduce the risk of fatal force.

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Gaston’s study examines national data on fatal police incidents from 580 U.S. counties with populations greater than 100,000 between the years 2013 and 2018. Researchers then analyzed the degree to which certain factors — violent crime, social disorganization (i.e., poverty, residential instability, etc.) and racial conflict — explained county-level killings in six racial and gender subgroups: white men and women, Black men and women, and Hispanic men and women.

Police violence is a leading cause of death of Black men, and studies have shown that officers stop, ticket, arrest and surveil Black people (and in some cases, Hispanic and Native American people) at rates disproportionate to their criminal involvement.

But law enforcement and policing literature often attributes those disparities to the notion that people of color live in dangerous and disadvantaged communities, which put them at greater risk for fatal police encounters.

“The role of community racial context is not supposed to be a legal factor that shapes policing,” Gaston said. “However, when controlling for other factors, police are more likely to kill in places with a higher percentage of white residents.”

Police killings of white men, Black men, and Hispanic men and women are strongly tied to violent crime, according to the study.

In categories of social disorganization, poverty predicts police killings of white men and women while residential instability predicts the killing of Black men and women. Neither factor is strongly linked to police killings of Hispanic men and women.

Racial conflict can also explain the use of police fatal force, Gaston said.

Police killings are more likely to occur in communities that are racially diverse or predominantly white, and Black men and women are the only victims who face a greater risk in those areas, she said.

“When you look at the racial context of the places (where police fatal force occurs), they are not happening in predominantly black areas, they are happening in places that are racially diverse or places that are predominantly white,” she said.

Though Gaston’s study did not look at police killings at the local level (the sample size is too small), The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has tracked fatal police shootings in Georgia since 2010. As of this summer, the newspaper had recorded nearly 350 such deaths.

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These numbers are only inclusive of those who were shot by police, and did not include people who died after being shocked with an electric stun device, assaulted or forced into a wreck during a police chase. A previous AJC analysis showed there is about one fatal police shooting in Georgia every 12 days.

When you look at the raw numbers through mid-2021, it looks as if the numbers of Black people and white people killed by police are roughly equal, at 125 and 128 respectively. But Black people comprise slightly less than one-third of Georgia’s population, and the white population makes up a little more than half. When viewed in context of the total population, Black people in Georgia are shot to death by police at a rate that is two-thirds higher than that of white people.

As Gaston notes, the conversation about police killings must continue to focus on ways that will reduce police use of fatal force.

“There needs to be radical, concerted effort to reduce fatal force, even those that are legally allowed under current laws,” Gaston said. “If police agencies impose policies for when and how officers can use force, it may reduce fatal force overall.”

Another strategy offered in a recent AJC editorial by Louis M. Dekmar, chief of the LaGrange Police Department and a member of the Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Policing, is to focus on training.

ExploreOpinion: Training is key to excellence in policing in Georgia

The average basic training for a police recruit ranges from a high of 1,000 hours in Hawaii down to 408 hours in Georgia, which only exceeds the lowest state, Mississippi, by eight hours, he wrote.

“Most police training in the United States is too short, uses ineffective teaching methods and emphasizes the wrong things ... police recruits — and veterans — should spend more time working on communication skills, learning de-escalation tactics and handling the kinds of scenarios that officers are most likely to encounter,” Dekmar said.

There must also be accountability systems and active supervision, he said. One possibility is the creation of national standards.

“Without such standards, gaps in training will persist in police agencies across the country. And the sometimes painful outcomes caused by those gaps will continue as well,” Dekmar said.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.

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