Controversial shootings by police lead to a national outcry and a range of reforms that reduce police killings of suspects by half. Sound like a pie-in-the-sky hope for the future? It’s precisely what happened in the 1970s and ’80s.
America’s virtually forgotten success at reducing gun violence by police is recounted in a new article by Lawrence Sherman, a criminologist at the University of Maryland. Sherman documents that police violence against crime suspects was a major civil rights issue in the late 1960s, highlighted most vividly by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s order for police to fire at looters during the 1968 riots.
Under the influence of reform-minded police chiefs such as Patrick Murphy in Washington and later in New York City, the 1970s brought dramatic changes in the training, supervision and monitoring of big-city police officers. Many cities banned police from shooting at fleeing nonviolent suspects, firing warning shots into the air or shooting at cars.
Sherman credits Murphy with “establishing the equivalent of a National Transportation Safety Board to conduct a formal inquiry on every single firearms discharge.” Officers who fired their weapon were interviewed afterward by a panel of firearms trainers and other senior officials with the power to impose punishment for breaking rules but just as importantly to determine why the shooting happened and how training should change in response. Other chiefs copied Murphy’s model.
One of the review board’s recommendations, Sherman notes, “was to convert annual refresher firearms training from target practice to role play simulations with actors in a mock apartment building, in a series of shoot-don’t shoot scenarios, mock guns drawn.” Police learned through such training to defuse many situations that previously would have led to gunfire.
Academic research was also critical in demonstrating that fewer shootings by police did not translate into greater risk of violence toward officers. It also helped immeasurably that police departments began to treat a lack of police shootings as a reason to promote an officer rather than a sign that he or she was insufficiently tough.
Police killings of suspects declined by half nationally from 1970 to 1985, with even larger changes in big cities such as New York, which had an 88 percent decrease. The principal beneficiaries of this change were black Americans. After rising as high as 7 to 1, the rate at which black versus white suspects in large cities were killed by police declined to 2.8 to 1 by the end of the 1970s.
With the rise of crack cocaine, an increase in police departments switching from revolvers to semiautomatic pistols and a 1989 Supreme Court decision expanding the immunity of police who harm suspects, killings by police began to rise in the 1990s. And today, they are at least as much a focus of national outrage and agony as they were in the late 1960s.
Turning back the tide of killings by police should be easier this time around because successful strategies for doing so were developed and widely employed only a generation ago. A few city police departments, for example in Camden, New Jersey, are wisely reviving some of the changes of that time period. Many more should follow their example.
Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and is an affiliated faculty member at Stanford Law School and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.