The number of people killed by police has increased by a third in recent years, even as violent crime has trended downward and the number of officers assaulted or killed in the line of duty has dropped.
This is according to an analysis by this newspaper of federal data in the wake of high-profile officer-involved shootings in Cleveland, Beavercreek and Ferguson, Mo. All three of the victims in these shootings were black and were either unarmed or carrying a realistic-seeming toy or BB gun.
When adjusted for population, the data shows black people were twice as likely to be killed by police than whites. Blacks are also disproportionally more likely to come in contact with police as suspects in violent crimes.
The data provides context for the national discussion called for by experts and community leaders as demonstrations and protests roil Ferguson and other cities across America.
“A focal point of those discussions is improving the relationship with the minority community, engaging them and involving them in both the quality and scope of police services,” said Patrick Oliver, director of the criminal justice program at Cedarville University and a former police chief in Fairborn and Cleveland.
“I think policing has come a long way in engaging the community,” Oliver said. “The question we need to ask is, ‘Have we left some segments of the community behind?’”
In 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, 386 whites and 140 blacks were killed by police, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control data on causes of death.
In Ohio, blacks made up 50 percent of the killings by police — 10 of the 20 recorded deaths — though they make up just 13 percent of the state’s population.
‘There have to be conversations’
Violent protests broke out in Ferguson after a grand jury decided not to bring charges against Officer Darrell Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown after an altercation in which Brown was unarmed.
Branford Brown, executive director of the Miami Valley Urban League, thinks race was a factor in the teenager’s death, but he said the best way to counter such tragedies is to open more lines of communication.
“I think there have to be conversations between the police and communities of color before these shootings take place,” Brown said. “I just think that a lot of what causes these reactionary shootings is fear. If that same cop had dealt with a young white boy, he would have had a different response because he wouldn’t have had the same fear inside of him that this guy is going to do me harm, whether it’s real or imagined.”
Oliver said evidence shows biased-based policing — officers acting based on someone’s appearance, not conduct — does occur, though “I’d like to think it’s the exception, not the rule.”
Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl, who was assistant police chief in Cincinnati when the shooting of an unarmed, black 19-year-old sparked riots there in 2001, said friction between police and communities are fed by large issues such as poverty and unemployment.
“What are these conditions that contribute to such a profound and ultimately destructive response to a single event involving a police officer and a citizen?” Biehl said. “I think there’s some learning that has to come from that.”
The makeup of a police force — and its treatment of minority groups in the community — can also be a factor, according to Derrick Foward, president of the Dayton unit of the NAACP.
“We at the NAACP know all too well that the violence that led to Michael Brown’s death and the prevalence of racial profiling in St. Louis, Mo., does not occur in a vacuum, but is part of a sequence of tragedies,” Foward said. “The death of Michael Brown and actions by the Ferguson Police Department is a distressing symptom of the untested and overaggressive policing culture that has become commonplace in communities of color — all across the country — for too long.”
Biehl said he has not seen any increase in police use of force locally.
“You have to know the context to understand whether there is something unreasonable going on here, whether there is some harmful pattern or are police merely responding to these volatile and violent situations,” he said.
Police shootings up, violent crime down
FBI statistics show that violent crime has declined for years — from 1.39 million crimes reported in 2008 to 1.16 million in 2013. But blacks account for a disproportionate number of those crimes. In 2013, 5,375 blacks and 4,396 whites were listed as suspects in murder cases, with the alleged perpetrator unknown in about 4,000 cases. Slightly more than half of the victims in these murders were black.
At the same time, the number of people killed by police has steadily climbed since 2008 — from 381 that year to 550 in 2012.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office oversees grand jury investigations of officer-involved shootings upon request, said the numbers speak to the need for a thorough examination of the facts in every case.
“Every time there is an officer-involved shooting there should be an examination of what happened in that particular case and was the training that officer received correct,” he said.
Twenty-seven officers were killed in the line of duty in 2013, and 49,851 were the victims of an assault, according to FBI statistics released last week. A third of the assaults resulted in the officer getting injured, the FBI found.
More than 2,200 officers were attacked with a firearm, according to the report, with about 11 percent of those attacks resulting in injuries.
In addition, 49 officers died from accidents on the job.
The FBI data shows that the number of deaths and assaults have declined in recent years. In 2011, 72 officers were killed and in 2008, 61,087 officers were assaulted.
Of the suspects in the 27 officer deaths in 2013, 15 were white and 11 black, according to the FBI report. Of the officers killed, 25 were white and two black.
Each of these statistics is a story.
This month, an off-duty police officer — who was engaged and had a 4-year-old daughter — was gunned down while trying to protect other patrons at an Akron pub. In Florida last week, a sheriff’s deputy was shot and another was wounded when a man set fire to a house and then tried to kill as many first responders as possible. The gunman was killed by police.
Future reports on the number of officers assaulted will include Darrell Wilson. His attacker, Michael Brown, will count among the dead.
Wilson initially stopped Brown for jaywalking and says he then realized Brown matched the description of a suspect in a nearby robbery. Wilson said Brown attacked him when he confronted him. The fatal shot was fired at a distance. Wilson said Brown was charging at him.
Brown was not armed, though he was a large man: 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds. So was Wilson: the same height and 210 pounds.
People who are unarmed accounted for 80 percent of the assaults against police officers in 2013. Only a very small percentage of those resulted in an officer-involved shooting.
A separate CDC violent crime database drills deeper into these types of cases in 17 states, including Ohio but not including Missouri. That data includes 150 people killed by police in 2011, and says in 115 of those cases, the person killed used a weapon. It does not break that information down by race.
That data also lists 97 percent of the officer-involved deaths that year as “justifiable.”
The data does not say how often someone killed by police was wielding an artificial gun.
A 12-year-old in Cleveland died this month after police responded to a 911 call that he was pointing a “probably fake” gun at people at a park. The dispatcher didn’t relay that the gun might be a fake, and video shows the rookie officer shooting the boy moments after arriving on the scene and jumping out of his car.
The 12-year-old, Tamir Rice, had a pellet gun without a orange tip. The incident is under investigation.
A Greene County grand jury cleared Beavercreek police Sgt. Sean Williams in September after Williams shot and killed 22-year-old John Crawford, who was walking around Walmart with a realistic looking pellet gun he had picked up from a shelf there.
Police officers in these cases say they were responding to what they saw as a deadly threat.
This newspaper has logged 47 officer-involved shootings in this area since over the past decade, and in all but three cases the person shot was armed with a weapon — a hammer in one instance. None of these cases resulted in charges against an officer, though one led to a $262,500 legal settlement this year and another resulted in the officer being fired for not following police policy.
Grand juries have a high bar to bring charges against officers. When they do, it’s often a misdemeanor charge such as negligent manslaughter. And then, it’s even rarer to convict.
“Juries are very reluctant to convict an officer for on-duty assaults and killings and things like that,” said Phil Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University.
Stinson’s research found that from 2005 to 2011, 41 officers were charged with on-duty gun-related murder or manslaughter.
During those years, 2,940 people were killed by police actions, according to CDC data.
Polls show Americans are divided by race on many aspects of the Brown shooting, including over whether Wilson should have been charged with murder and whether police treat blacks differently than whites.
Only 19 percent of whites said some or most police officers in their areas are prejudiced against blacks, while 33 percent of nonwhites — including blacks, Latinos and Asians — held that opinion, according to CNN/ORC International survey of 1,045 Americans conducted Nov. 21-23. Meanwhile, half of all whites say that “almost none” or “none” of the police in their areas are prejudiced against blacks.
Only 35 percent of nonwhites agreed with that view.
While some observers fear the grand jury decision in the Brown case has driven a wider wedge among Americans along ethnic lines, the NAACP’s Foward said he was heartened by the multi-ethnic crowds that have gathered to protest the shooting since October.
“As people saw in Ferguson, there was a show of solidarity among all races, creeds and colors who took to the streets in protest of this young man losing his life at the hands of the Ferguson Police Department,” Foward said. “It wasn’t just a black movement. People from all backgrounds were marching with a common purpose, and that purpose was to seek justice for this young man’s family.”
Most Americans — 63 percent — agreed that peaceful protests were justified if the grand jury didn’t indict Wilson on criminal charges, according to the CNN survey. But a racial divide remained on whether violent protests were justified, with 22 percent of nonwhites and 10 percent of whites saying yes.
‘Abuse of power’
Darnell Williams and a handful of other black men gathered at the RTA bus stop downtown last week said they don’t believe Wilson’s account of what happened and that he should have been charged with a crime so a jury could decide whether he was telling the truth in open court where evidence could be challenged.
“You can’t punch a cop and expect him not to come back on you,” Williams said. “But you’re telling me there was no way he could have stopped him (Brown) without shooting him dead. He’s supposed to be trained and whatever, and he couldn’t stop this kid who didn’t even have a gun or a knife.”
Dayton resident Deontay Williams, 35, of Dayton said there is a presumption among police that if you hang around high-crime areas you are guilty of “doing what everybody else is doing.’
“Not just blacks,” he said. “It’s not about race all the time. It’s about abuse of power. They know they can do whatever the hell they want to, no questions asked.”
‘Never the path forward’
The protests following last week’s grand jury decision in Ferguson turned violent at times, with protesters attacking police cars and looting businesses.
Vernellia Randall, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Dayton who teaches courses on racism and the law, said the response was justified and the only real way to effect change is to take direct action.
“Some call for healing, I am not one them,” Randall wrote in a letter to the Dayton Daily News. “Every child that is lost is an open wound that cannot and should not be healed. The pain of their loss must be felt continuously to remind us why we risk our life and the lives of others.”
But the Urban League’s Brown said violent protest only make matters worse. Not only do the protesters do damage to their own neighborhoods, but they also subject themselves to reprisals from police, he said.
“I would never advocate destruction and violent protest because of the disproportionate negative impact it has in communities of color,” Brown said.
Noting that the much-maligned prosecutor in the Brown case ran unopposed in the last several elections, Brown added, “I just would rather that that anger be channeled into some positive streams like voting.”
Years ago Cincinnati was the scene of violent protests like those in Ferguson. The rioting, which took place after the shooting of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas by a Cincinnati patrolman, resulted in some police reforms but also millions of dollars in damages to the downtown and Over-the-Rhine neighborhoods.
“The very community that was advocating and demanding relief from police interventions that had these adverse outcomes was the very community that suffered the most,” Biehl said “So it is never the path forward for any community.”
Staff Writer Kyle Nagel contributed to this report.