Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Line of Duty Deaths in 2014. Two Narratives.

There are two narratives about the police that I've been hearing a lot lately.

One is that police "all the time" get killed by their own service weapon. That means that "he reached for my gun," or even worse, "I thought he might be reaching for my gun," merits instant force. We saw that in the Michael Brown case, in which Wilson claimed that Brown was reaching for his gun. We also see it in this case, in which two New Jersey cops shout, "Stop trying to reach my gun" while illegally beating a man. Dash-cam video exonerated the victim and led to an indictment for the officers.

Two - the idea that thanks to the proliferation of high-powered privately owned weaponry, the police must militarize or be dangerously out-gunned.

Here are the 46 deaths (including K9 deaths) by gunfire in the line-of-duty in 2014. Each one is a tragedy. In most cases, thankfully, the criminals were caught and punished.

In 2014, I have found one case in which a police officer was killed with his own weapon. And one case in which a police officer was killed by someone else while a struggle for his weapon was ongoing.
  • Edwin O. Roman-Acevdo - He was killed by a second assailant with a firearm while the first assailant struggled with Roman-Acevedo over his service weapon.
  • David W. Smith was shot and killed with his own service weapon.
It clearly is a genuine risk and one that police are rightly trained to be careful about. It's something, however, that happens in TV shows frequently, and I suspect our fear of this risk overstates the actual likelihood. The problem is that if the officer can claim any kind of reasonable fear for his life, the law justifies the officer using deadly force. 

Here's the FBI data on Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs) being killed by their own weapon from 2004-2013. Again, it's a problem, it's a real risk point, but it's not an epidemic. "He reached for my gun" cannot be used as a blanket excuse to justify all violent outcomes. 

As for point two, that's a harder one to research, so I'll just offer these cases. There are 10 cases that I have found of "military-esque" weapons being used to kill police. Five of the deaths (and possibly 6) came from right-wing terrorists. 
It's definitely true that criminals can be heavily armed, and police need to be ready to deal with such situations. It is, in fact, why I am a big supporter of SWAT as a vital component of modern policing (and an equally big critic of the over-use of SWAT). There are bad people out there with lots of firepower; police need to be ready. They just need to stop using their military-like equipment in situations that don't require it.

But here's the clearest conclusion that I draw from reading these 46 sad cases:

It is WAY too easy for criminals to get firearms. Not high-powered military weapons, but common handguns. So many tragedies in which a "known felon" or "recent parolee" pulled a gun and killed an officer. If #BlueLivesMatter then #GunControlNow

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