Is There a Silver Bullet?
A look at officer-involved shootings and police training in comparable cities
By Patrick Lohmann
Darren White stood before the City Council alongside Police Chief Ray Schultz. The director of public safety was trying to give context as to why Albuquerque officers have shot at or killed 11 members of the public this year, nearly twice the city’s average since 2004.
“We tend to be somewhat of a violent town,” White said. “We have to be willing to take a very deep look at our community and dissect each and every instance of why there is violence.”
The perception that violent crime is related to officer-involved shootings is also present among officers. Felipe Garcia, vice president of the Albuquerque Police Officer Association, attended the same Monday, Sept. 20 City Council meeting with a dozen or so fellow members. He says it makes sense that there's a correlation.
“We do live in a violent society. It’s not the officer who decides to fire upon anybody.” The assailant makes the decision for the officer, he says. “A lot of these shootings that these officers have been involved in have been in direct relation to violent crime that was being committed at that time.”
So does a city’s violent crime rate have any bearing on its number of officer-involved shootings? According to Census and FBI data and an analysis done by the University of New Mexico Statistics Consulting Clinic, it’s difficult to draw that conclusion.
Take, for example, Sacramento, Calif. In 2009, the city had about 470,000 people and saw 4,165 instances of violent crime, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report. Averaging Sacramento’s officer-involved shootings since 2005 shows that officers there fire their guns 2.83 times per year, according to data obtained from the city’s police department.
Albuquerque’s population was larger in 2009—around 530,000—and the FBI counted fewer instances of violent crime: 4,082. Including the 11 shootings this year, Albuquerque has averaged 6.3 shootings a year since 2005.
Tucson, Ariz., had about 3,500 violent crimes recorded in 2009, but despite this lower rate, it averaged slightly more shootings than Albuquerque: 6.5 per year.
“Every circumstance is different that the officer is faced with, and we have to judge each of them on their merit.”
Lt. Lloyd Cox at the Long Beach Police Department
And Long Beach, Calif., has by far the highest number of officer-involved shootings, averaging 11.33 a year, but saw only 3,161 violent crimes in 2009. Long Beach officers fired their guns 17 times in 2009—including, sometimes, at animals, as well as accidental discharges—but officers have only been involved in five shootings so far in 2010.
Yong Lin is a teaching assistant in the statistics program who also runs UNM’s stats clinic for data analysis. He says no correlation exists between the two variables.
Homicide Lt. Lloyd Cox at the Long Beach Police Department says he understands why violent-crime-versus-shooting numbers are all over the charts. In fact, he says, there’s no single reason for officer-involved shootings.
“Every circumstance is different that the officer is faced with,” he says, “and we have to judge each of them on their merit.”
In fact, each of the seven police departments interviewed (see table) mentioned how many factors there are. “There’s not one golden egg,” says Sgt. Ed Wessing in Mesa, Ariz. “There are just so many variables.”
Mesa had the lowest violent crime rate of the seven cities examined and nearly the lowest average number of shootings since 2005. He says the department’s arsenal of nonlethal weapons might have contributed to the low shooting rate, though it’s difficult to be certain.
“Clearly, police agencies need to be vigilant on their training with less-than-lethal options," he says. This has significantly reduced not only officer-involved shootings but officer injuries and assaults, Wessing says.
Mesa police officers have Tasers and beanbag shotguns at their disposal to help bring down the shooting rate. But all of the departments interviewed had these less-than-lethal weapons.
Lt. Ray Torres, director of training at Albuquerque’s police academy, says cadets typically spend about a 30 of 900 hours on crisis intervention and de-escalation. Crisis intervention instruction, Torres says, teaches peaceful resolution to scenarios sometimes involving assailants armed with knives or guns. There is no set schedule for brushing up on that training throughout the course of an officer's career. Albuquerque also spends less time reviewing such instruction than most of the six peer cities the Alibi contacted.
Refresher courses on any skills gained in the academy, Torres says, are typically mandated by the state or within APD. Torres says he can’t recall the last time crisis intervention training was mandated department-wide.
Though valuable, such preparations can only go so far in readying officers for deadly situations, he adds; sometimes talking to an assailant isn’t an option.
“Clearly, police agencies need to be vigilant on their training with less-than-lethal options."
Sgt. Ed Wessing in Mesa, Ariz.
“Things just happen so fast and, Whoa, this guy is coming at me and he’s got a shovel, or he’s got a knife, or he’s got a gun. All the talking in the world isn’t going to do you any good, and it’s time to take action and protect yourselves and protect those around you,” Torres says.
Mesa police officers have the option to attend semiannual 40-hour crisis intervention trainings; Sacramento police officers have a 40-hour mandatory crisis intervention training annually. Mesa and Sacramento have dramatically smaller averages of officer-involved shootings for the last five years.
Kansas City officers must spend 16 hours reviewing crisis intervention skills each year and can opt in on additional training. But Kansas City had about 2,000 more instances of violent crime in 2009 than Albuquerque and averaged about 1.3 more shootings.
Torres says New Mexico sometimes requires department-wide training if legislators recognize a trend, a mandate known as a Maintenance of Effort. This year, Torres says APD officials are anticipating a crisis-intervention MOE.
“If the flavor of the month for the state is domestic violence, then that’s what we do,” Torres says. “Now the public’s been outraged about the 11 shootings that we’ve had this year, so what we’re going to do in the spring is have a block of crisis intervention training as a refresher for our officers.”
Torres points out that the department uses a team of officers solely for de-escalation and crisis-intervention tasks.
The Crisis Intervention Team was created in 1996 after a recommendation in 1991 from the Public Safety Advisory Board. The board was reacting to an increase in the number of officer-involved shootings and, according to a later report, was disappointed when APD took five years to create the team.
Now that it’s up and running, though, Torres says the Crisis Intervention Team is one of the best means for APD to control its rate of officer-involved shootings. CIT-certified officers are embedded with other officers.
“We’re unique in the fact that we have a unit that that’s all they deal with,” he says. “We want the public to trust us. We don’t want people thinking, These guys are going to show up and just start guns blazing.”
To date, 125 of APD’s nearly 1,100 officers are CIT-certified, according to the police department's spokesperson Trish Hoffman. Torres says that a CIT-certified officer is called if he or she is needed at a situation. Still, time is the main factor when determining who arrives at what call.
Cmdr. Jeff Johnson has trained Long Beach police officers for the last 20 years. He says even if all of APD was coached in crisis intervention, officers still will find themselves quickly deciding whether to use lethal force.
“When you’re teaching construction or drywall or something like that, there’s definite answers. How do I nail a board up?” he asks, as an example. “In use of force, it’s different because there are very few hard, fast rules. I can’t say, If someone pulls a knife on you, you can always shoot them. What if it’s a 70-year-old woman in a walker?”
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