#24 Eight Use of Force Policies to Prevent Killings by Police

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Killings by police are not inevitable or difficult to prevent, according to a September 2016 study by Campaign Zero, a police-reform group formed in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests. The study, “Police Use of Force Policy Analysis,” examined police departments in ninety-one of the nation’s largest cities and found that departments with stricter use of force regulations killed significantly fewer people. Noting that many police departments fail to establish “common sense restrictions” on use of force and that police violence is “distributed disproportionally,” with black people being three times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts, the study’s authors wrote, “fundamentally changing use of force polic[i]es can dramatically reduce the number of people killed by police in America.” As Jamilah King reported in Mic, the study is “the first wide-scale analysis to demonstrate the connection between differing ‘use of force’ policies and the rate of police killings.”

Campaign Zero identified the following eight guidelines, restricting when and how police officers should use force, that greatly decrease the likelihood of civilian deaths:

  • Require officers to de-escalate situations before resorting to force.
  • Limit the kinds of force that can be used to respond to specific forms of resistance.
  • Restrict chokeholds.
  • Require officers to give a verbal warning before using force.
  • Prohibit officers from shooting at moving vehicles.
  • Require officers to exhaust all alternatives to deadly force.
  • Require officers to stop colleagues from exercising excessive force.
  • Require comprehensive reporting on use of force.

Campaign Zero found that, on average, “each additional use of force policy was associated with a 15% reduction in killings,” and that implementing all eight guidelines would result in a 54 percent reduction in killings for the average police department. Taking into account the number of arrests made, assaults on officers, and community demographics, Campaign Zero reported that police departments with all eight use of force policies implemented “would kill 72% fewer people than departments that have none of these policies in place.”

As King reported for Mic, Campaign Zero determined its findings by combining police department data on use of force policies, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, and records of police-involved killings dating back to 2015, as compiled by the Guardian and the Washington Post. (For previous Project Censored coverage of efforts to track the number of police-involved killings of civilians, see “Who Dies at the Hands of US Police—and How Often,” Censored 2016, pp. 58–61; “National Database of Police Killings Aims for Accountability,” Censored 2015, p. 69; Peter Phillips, Diana Grant, and Greg Sewell, “Law Enforcement–Related Deaths in the US: ‘Justified Homicides’ and Their Impacts on Victims’ Families,” Censored 2015, pp. 243–68.)

In her coverage of the Campaign Zero study, Alice Speri of the Intercept noted that just thirty-four of the ninety-one police departments studied by Campaign Zero had policies requiring officers to de-escalate situations before resorting to force, and only thirty-one of the ninety-one departments required officers to exhaust all alternatives before resorting to deadly force. Just fifteen of the ninety-one departments required officers to report on all uses of force, including threatening a civilian with a firearm.

Yet, as King reported in Mic, Campaign Zero found significant differences between metropolitan police departments that had four or more of the policies in place and those that did not. For example, Washington, DC, and Miami did have four or more of the policies in place, and these cities had relatively low rates of police killings (between six police killings per million residents for Washington, DC, and ten per million for Miami). By contrast, the police departments of Orlando, Florida; Stockton, California; and Oklahoma City each implemented fewer than four of the use of force guidelines, and these cities had the nation’s worst rates of police killings (between twenty-one police killings per million residents for Oklahoma City and twenty-five per million for Orlando).

Samuel Sinyangwe, one of the study’s researchers and authors, told the Intercept that few departments have implemented all or most of these policies, partly due to “resistance from police unions that claim more restrictive policies will endanger officers.” On the contrary, the Campaign Zero study showed that the numbers of officers assaulted or killed in the line of duty decreased in proportion with the number of regulations adopted by their department.

Sinyangwe, the Campaign Zero researcher, told Mic, “Two years ago we didn’t even have the data to know which police departments were killing people at higher rates than others and why . . . Now we can identify the key policies to prevent these killings.”

Kate Stringer’s YES! Magazine article, “We Already Know How to Reduce Police Racism and Violence,” predated the publication of the Campaign Zero report, but offered insights on how cities could interrupt police violence, based on findings of previous research. Her report cited prior studies encouraging support for police reforms which included training officers against racial bias, hiring more female officers, hiring to match communities’ racial diversity, opening departments to research, and using body cameras.

As of June 2017, Campaign Zero’s findings appear to have been completely overlooked by the nation’s major corporate news outlets.

Kate Stringer, “We Already Know How to Reduce Police Racism and Violence,” YES! Magazine, July 8, 2016, http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/cities-have-the-power-to-reduce-police-racism-and-violence.

Jamilah King, “Study: More Restrictive ‘Use of Force’ Policies Could Curb the Epidemic of Police Violence,” Mic, September 21, 2016, https://mic.com/articles/154715/study-more-restrictive-use-of-force-policies-could-curb-the-epidemic-of-police-violence.

Alice Speri, “Here are Eight Policies That Can Prevent Police Killings,” Intercept, September 21, 2016, https://theintercept.com/2016/09/21/here-are-eight-policies-that-can-prevent-police-killings.

Student Researcher: Malcolm Pinson (San Francisco State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)