Are American police too violent?

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What’s posted below is from my upcoming work. Given recent events, it seems more relevant everyday. It is impossible to have a complete and honest conversation about modern violence in the United States without also addressing the subject of race. As I’ve worked on my larger project I’ve struggled with how I should approach that topic. I concluded that the only proper way is forthrightly. If I find myself more concerned about how certain people view me as opposed to what the facts are, then I will have betrayed a cowardice that indicates I care more about sending virtue signals, than I do the lives of my fellow Americans, be they black, white, Hispanic, or otherwise. The world is already filled with too much of that.

Violent escalation and the use of force in law enforcement

A few years ago I received a phone call from a public defender in Seattle. She had some questions for me regarding a use of force incident that had occurred in King County. An officer with Seattle Police Department, who happened to also be a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, had mounted and then punched her client – and she was quite sure that given his training, his use of force was unnecessarily brutal. She had heard of me, and they were looking for an expert witness to fly to Seattle and testify. She asked what I would charge. I gave her a high number. Sitting in court testifying on anything, isn’t my idea of a good time. She didn’t flinch. They had the budget and would pay my fee. She asked if she could run a few things by me, described her client’s version of the events, and asked a series of questions:

“Shouldn’t a 200lb brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-itsu be able to handle a smaller 18 year old ‘boy’ fairly easy?”

 “Why would someone with this kind of training ever need to hit someone in the face, especially when they already have them mounted?”

With each question I answered honestly, which meant I answered with more questions. How big was the suspect? It turns out he was a full size man. Was he resisting arrest? Her version was no. The officer’s version, as well as several witnesses, was yes. I explained to her that when adrenaline is flowing, any human being who is determined to battle it out, could be very difficult to hold down and control. Sometimes, in such circumstances, punching someone in the face is necessary. And, while the officer’s training in BJJ was surely a help – there is no magic bullet. When you’re wearing a gun and engaged in hand-to-hand conflict with someone who is resisting you, the consequences of failure can be fatal. And since I was not on scene when it happened, there was no way for me to say whether this officer’s use of force was excessive, based solely on the information she provided. For me to answer her honestly, I’d need a lot more facts.

I hung up never expecting to receive a paycheck from the city of Seattle.

I was surprised a few days later when she called back. This time it was a group call, and I fielded similar questions from multiple people. She also e-mailed me the officer’s arrest report. To my surprise, despite my consistent role as devils advocate to her excessive force hypothesis, they wanted me to fly in the following week for court as their expert witness, and they were paying really well.

Over the next few days I wrestled with whether or not I would take the job. Nothing I had read, in either the officer’s or defense attorney’s version of events, led me to conclude the officer had used excessive force. However, if the defense didn’t bring me in, they’d likely bring in someone else, and it seemed unlikely that the ‘someone else’ they hired would be as versed as I am in the mechanics of holding another body down. Also, adding ‘expert witness’ to my resume didn’t sound like the worst idea.

On the other hand, testifying for the defense in a case like this went against my conscience. Regardless of how carefully I formed my sentences she wouldn’t be putting me on the stand with the intention of helping the officer, and it was obvious to me in talking to her and her team that this public defender had little to no grasp of the difficulties that arise in physical altercations. She had what Vice President Joe Biden once called a “John Wayne” understanding of violence. Educated by Hollywood, ignorant by definition, a common affliction.

In the end I called them and politely declined the offer. They weren’t happy. They now had to find someone else, and had even less time to do it. I’ve never for a moment regretted that decision.

Use of force incidents involving law enforcement are all over the news these days. In 2012, in a nation with over 330 million people in it, the police made over 12 million arrests.

In that same year, there were 410 uses of deadly force by law enforcement.

What that means numerically is that police shootings occur in about 0.003% of arrests.

Don’t let the infinitesimally small percentage of shootings per arrests fool you. It isn’t the reality of violence related to law enforcement, or even, the nature of the events – such as the distinction between those who commit violence as they attempt to break the law and those who are forced to commit violence while defending it – that interests the media. No, all the mass media really cares about – is the skin color of those involved. After all, that’s where the ratings are.

On August 9th, 2014, in Ferguson Missouri, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer named Darren Wilson.

According the Brown family, Michael was a “gentle giant”. To quote an article written in the Daily Kos “Michael was a built to be a high school football star. But he was too timid for the sport. Michael had never been in a fight in his life.”

The family’s story goes like this. Michael (who actually was 6’5” tall and 289lbs) was walking down the street minding his own business. Officer Wilson, who was white, pulled along side Brown to harass him. He was after all “walking while black”, as President Obama has stated. Wilson then tries to pull Brown down through his window, without exiting his car. An odd move for a police officer, for sure. Brown manages to escape, and then lifts his hands into the air – which has now become the famous Black Lives Matter protest symbol of hands up don’t shoot! At which point officer Wilson opens fire, murdering the gentle giant in cold blood.

That was the family’s version. That was the version the “Reverend” Al Sharpton, and other social justice warriors ran with. And that story was spread Nation wide, across the media.

At the time my comments on the topic were simple – let’s wait and see what the evidence shows. But waiting for evidence wasn’t a popular sentiment.

No justice no peace!

Riots ensued. Calls for officer Wilson’s immediate arrest were made. The lust for mob retribution ran deep.

Over time, as almost always happens, the facts came to light.

First was the security camera footage, it showed the “gentle giant”, the man who had never even been in a fight in his life, slamming a tiny store clerk into a display case as he stole a box of Swisher Sweets (cheap cigars).

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Then, we were given officer Wilson’s version of events.

Wilson was on patrol. He saw Brown walking down the middle of the street. Wilson pulled Brown over, and attempted to exit his car. Brown shut the door on him. Then Brown, a 289lb man, pushed himself through the driver’s side window, and attempted to take officer Wilson’s gun from him. The gun went off. Brown attempted to run away. Officer Wilson exited the vehicle and chased him down. Brown then turned around and charged at Wilson, whereupon officer Wilson fired several times, dropping Michael Brown.

Clearly the Brown family version and officer Wilson’s version are very different.

How do we know whom to believe?

Should we just go with the version we prefer?

If you already dislike cops, it’s easy to run with the gentle giant version. Mean cop kills a young boy for no other reason than the fact that he’s black!

That’s certainly the version a lot of the media alluded to. It’s certainly the version that the rioters, who looted, burned, and robbed their own neighborhood, seemed to buy into.

Or, should we assume officer Wilson’s version, simply because he is in uniform?

There is a reason we as human beings have a legal system. There is a reason people are tried in a court of law, and not in the court of public opinion, MSNBC, FOX News, or the “Reverend” Al Sharpton’s race baiting monologues.

As rational humans interested in truth, we need to look at evidence, not emotion. And here is what that evidence showed:

– More than a half-dozen black witnesses confirmed officer Wilson’s version of events.

– Blood spatter analysis, shell casings, and ballistics tests, all support officer Wilson’s version of events.

– An autopsy showed that Brown had a graze wound on his thumb that contained gunpowder, and can only occur in close quarters, causing San Francisco medical examiner Dr. Judy Melinek to conclude, this guy was reaching for his gun.”

The autopsy showed Brown’s hands were not up, when he was shot.

Forensic evidence, in 2014, was something we as a society were, and are, pretty good at. It is a hard science. It produces hard evidence. And the evidence in this case was unmistakable. Officer Wilson’s versions of events, was proven true by the evidence.

Was Michael Brown an unarmed black child?

Michael Brown was an extremely large, violent man, who wasn’t unarmed for a lack of trying. He had just robbed a convenience store, was strolling down the middle of the road, and when confronted – attacked a police officer. Reaching into his vehicle, he tried to take away the officers gun. And when that failed, and he was being pursued, he charged at the officer rather than face arrest.

Michael Brown chose, by his own actions, to die.

No thoughtful person would really want to live in a society where a police officer who found himself confronted by an angry, charging, 289lb man who had just tried to take away his gun, isn’t allowed to shoot. If you think that sounds wrong, read it again and think about it more – it isn’t.

Time and time again, when these incidents arise, the same fallacious arguments are marched forth. Seen from one, loftier perspective, these misconceptions point to a larger reality that is positive. Violence, and violent crime in America in particular, has been on a long, steady, unmistakable, and inarguable decline. The majority of US citizens are safer now than at anytime in history. And that’s a beautiful thing. But, as a side effect of that, many Americans, in fact I can even safely say ‘most’ Americans have little no to experience with real world violence. And that actuality leads to statements like this:

1- “Why shoot an ‘unarmed’ man?”

2- “He only had a knife!”

3- “Can’t police officers shoot to injure, rather than shoot to kill?”

The always arrogant – “If the option of shooting legs was available, then I see no reason for lethal shots.”

4- And finally“Why do American cops kill more black men?”

Let’s set aside the hubris required for someone who has no real understanding of gun violence to make empirical declarations about what there is “no reason for” in an altercation involving gun violence. The human need to argue things we know nothing about is far too large a topic for this essay. Instead, let’s address each of these comments, all of which I have heard or read many times in one variation or another, one by one.

#1 “Why shoot an unarmed man?”

When a suspect chooses to engage in hand to hand combat with an American police officer, a gun is involved; the officer’s gun. And when that suspect tries to reach for that gun, they have immediately escalated the situation to the stage of lethal force. They are not trying to take away that gun so they can look at it. They want to kill that cop. And anyone who thinks that a law enforcement officer ‘isn’t’ justified in the use of lethal force when someone is attempting to take away their weapon, is either a fool or . . . well, there really is no second option.

Understand as well, people die every year having been beaten to death by “unarmed” suspects. Try Google searching one punch homicide. Then remember, for every dead victim there are countless others suffering from permanent brain damage, or worse, after being attacked by an “unarmed” aggressor.

The thing that has to be acknowledged, but is never understood by the more thoughtless and reactionary law enforcement critics, is how quickly violence happens.

Police officers are forced to make life or death decisions, within seconds. Those who lack this skill are killed, or, those they are trying to protect are killed. And given the volume of hostile contacts police have to engage in daily in a country with over 330 million people in it, it’s actually kind of amazing how well the vast majority of American law enforcement officers, of both genders and all races, do this difficult job. A lesson the community activist in the below video learned first hand. And, perhaps more to the point, a lesson he may have only been able to learn first hand. Sometimes logic, evidence, and words, are not enough. Sometimes only the experience itself works.

Watch this and then ask yourself, how well would you do?

#2 “He only had a knife!

I’ve spent decades working with knives, and if you place me in a scenario where I am within twenty feet of my opponent, and one of us gets a holstered gun while the other gets a drawn knife, I’ll take the drawn knife every time. And I’m slow.

Dennis Tueller, a law enforcement trainer from Salt Lake City, popularized the 21-foot rule, which he had vividly demonstrated in the training video ‘Surviving Edged Weapons’. All of us who’ve been around this profession for a few decades can remember Dan Inosanto actively proving how important this rule is, on film. The rule itself is pretty simple.

In the time it takes an officer to draw his weapon and fire two shots center mass an oncoming target, the attacker can cover the distance of 21 feet.

Given the serious implications involved, in terms of both human life and legal jeopardy, others have retested this theory, to see how well it holds up.

The conclusion – for many officers, 21 feet isn’t enough.

It’s important to remember that any blade that penetrates the right part of the body, a skill many convicts practice in prison, can be lethal with a single strike. Multiple strikes, and most attackers practice and use multiple strikes, can be devastating. Knives are extraordinarily dangerous. A reality those who’ve never worked with them in a fighting context, may not realize.

The next time you hear someone say “he only had a knife!” understand, this person has no idea what a knife can do.

#3 “Can’t police officers shoot to injure, rather than shoot to kill?”

When someone says, “If the option of shooting legs was available, then I see no reason for lethal shots”, what they are actually betraying is a total lack of understanding as it relates to guns, and violent conflict. Firearms just don’t work that way.

In a world where violence is on the decline, and where most people’s exposure to gun fights comes solely from Hollywood, misunderstanding how firearms operate is understandable. Unlike the movies, where Clint Eastwood shoots someone in the knee to slow him down, it’s difficult to hit any target in a high-pressure situation. The adrenaline glands are pulsing. The action is occurring in segments of time that can only be measured by fractions of a second. And the body is operating in fight or flight mode. It’s hard to hit a large human torso, let alone “aim to hit a leg“. In fact it is not uncommon for officers and suspects to be just a few feet from each other, and both miss.

Keep in mind too, that suspects often continue attacking after being shot, requiring multiple bullets before being stopped.

And remember, your arms and legs, while being irresponsible targets to aim for, have large arteries – they can bleed out quickly.

These reasons are why you usually aim center mass.

Anyone sincere about understanding how gun violence plays out really needs to spend at least a day on the range with a qualified instructor, otherwise they can’t even begin to wrap their minds around these life threatening situations. And that needs to be followed that with some live simulations – the type of situational training that community activist went through.

“Surely police can be trained to shoot to injure rather than kill.”

Actually, no, shooting to injure makes no sense tactically, legally, or scientifically.

Limbs, hands and arms, are our fastest moving body parts. The average human can move their hand from their hip to the shoulder height in 18/100th of a second.

Let me repeat that, 18/100th of a second.

To engage the OODA loop, to react, track, and hit a moving limb, isn’t something most human beings can do in an ideal setting, like a range; let alone, a high pressure, adrenaline fueled, life or death altercation.

“What about the legs?”

Like I said, legs contain a lot of vascularity. Someone shot in the leg can bleed out in seconds if one of those arteries happened to get hit. And if not? Then the suspect’s hands are still free to fire back; a mistake that could result in that officer never going home to his children.

Finally, remember that firearms are only to be used when lethal force is justified.

If the altercation doesn’t warrant the use of deadly force, then why was the gun used at all? That’s not the type of question anyone wants to face in court.

Shooting to wound isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous and stupid.

The final issue I’d be remiss to ignore – is race. It presents itself in the following question.

4- “Why do American cops kill more black men?”

Short answer: Factually speaking, they don’t.

All the data shows conclusively that American police kill more whites than blacks. And while some dislike the way the FBI categorizes these deaths, we can use the CDC figures, the data preferred by law enforcement critics, to draw the same empirical conclusion. Peter Moskos, a professor in New York, cataloged all police related deaths, and showed that from May 2013 to April 2015, 49% of suspects killed were white, 30% were black, 19% were Hispanic, and 2% were Asian. Those percentages have remained fairly consistent over the last few decades.

This begs another question. Given that blacks make up only 13% of the American population, doesn’t that show that blacks are more likely to be killed by police than whites?

We will return to that question further down.

Long answer: When I began working on my book about violence, the first place I went was the raw data. I wanted to form my own thoughts before I read any opinions, or dug into the previously published work of others. I went back twenty years, and I drew from multiple sources, the largest being the BJS (Bureau of Justice Statistics), as well as the FBI and CDC.

A few things jump out at you when you do this. First, most all violent crime is committed by roughly 50% of the population, men.

Second, most of those men are under the age of 35, with the largest offender demographic being the age range of 15-23.

And finally, the rate of crime varies dramatically by race.

These actualities aren’t sexist, or ageist, or racist, they are simply facts. Facts that anyone who takes a look at the data can’t fail to notice.

How much variation do we find in the crime data when organized by race?

Here is the unarguable truth, as every criminologist, expert, and individual who’s ever looked at the data knows:

For the last 30 years more than 50% of all the homicides in the United States have been committed by a demographic that makes up less than 4% of the population, black males under the age of 35.

If you’re under the age of 35 in the United States your biggest killers are car accidents, drug overdoses, and suicide, unless you’re a black male. If you’re a black American male under the age of 35 your most likely cause of death will be murder at the hands of another young black male. It’s been that way for decades.

4906 black citizens were murdered by other black citizens in 2010 and 2011 alone. By the time President Obama leaves office there will have been at least 16,000 dead black Americans, murdered by other black Americans, on his watch.

This brings us back to our question. Given that blacks make up only 13% of the American population, but they comprise roughly 30% of those shot by police every year, doesn’t that show conclusively that blacks are more likely to be killed by police than whites?

Numerically, yes, a black man is 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police – proportionally, no, if we take into account the racial breakdown of violent crime, the data actually shows conclusively that police are less likely to kill a black suspect than they are a white one.

“But don’t American cops disproportionately kill more black men?”

First, notice that’s a different question from do they kill more black men. That distinction is vital if we are interested in the truth.

Second, they don’t.

Remember the data above. Less than 4% of the US population, young black males under the age of 35, have committed more than half of all murders in the United States for the last 30 years. That’s simply a fact. And if we account for that fact, if we adjust for the racial disparity in the homicide rate, whites are more likely to be killed by police.

“Doesn’t that just mean the police are more prone to harass black criminals, thereby, raising the rate of conviction?”

No. You can attempt to make that argument as it relates to some crimes (though I don’t think the evidence shows that either), but unless you want to posit an extremely large amount of unreported murders every year in this nation, you can’t apply that theory to homicides.

Here is the bottom line. Forget percentage police contacts. Though important, they are not necessary to prove the case. Just look at the number of black citizens who report being victimized every year – almost always at the hand of another black American. That alone is at least (depending on the crime) 8-10 times higher than in the poor white population. So unless someone wants to posit that these victims are lying, the systemic violence within the black community is undeniable.

“Aren’t most whites also victimized by whites?”

Yes, they are. And most Hispanics are victimized by Hispanics, and on it goes. But that’s only half the story. The other half, the half hate groups like Black Lives Matter don’t bother bringing up and don’t want to discuss, is that within the black community that victimization occurs on a much larger scale – 8-10 times larger. Some black neighborhoods in cities like New Orleans have had a higher homicide rate than existed in a 3rd world nation like El-Salvador, during wartime.

Given that, we’d expect to see more black suspects killed than whites. But we don’t.

Keep in mind that in these violent urban neighborhoods, the police tend to run from 911 call to 911 call. And the victims, other black citizens seeking aid, are making those calls. These aren’t officers casually patrolling, looking for potential black suspects. These are officers whose days are spent moving from one crime scene to the next.

Here are a few other facts that need to inform this conversation:

1- Cops killed nearly twice as many whites as blacks in 2015. According to data compiled by The Washington Post, 50 percent of the victims of fatal police shootings were white, while 26 percent were black. The majority of these victims had a gun or “were armed or otherwise threatening the officer”.

2- Black and Hispanic police officers are more likely to fire a gun at blacks than white officers. This is according to a Department of Justice report in 2015 about the Philadelphia Police Department, and is further confirmed that by a study conducted University of Pennsylvania criminologist Greg Ridgeway in 2015 that determined black cops were 3.3 times more likely to fire a gun than other cops at a crime scene. And this shouldn’t be a surprise, given the calls for mob vengeance, death threats to his children, and general destruction that occurs in an officers life, should he be involved in the shooting of a black suspect and happen to be white himself.

3- Blacks are more likely to kill cops than be killed by cops. 40 percent of cop killers are black. To be clear, 40% of cop killers are black males under the age of 35, again, less than 4% of the population. An American police officer is 18.5 times more likely to be killed by a black suspect, than a cop killing an unarmed black person.

This brings us to our last question.

“Should black Americans really be afraid of law enforcement?”

Given what we see on TV, or hear discussed in the Democratic National Convention, it sure seems like they should. But what does the data say? What are the real facts?

In 2015, in a Nation of 330 million people, the police made contact with over 55 million citizens.

Of those 55,000,000 million contacts, there were 965 fatalities.

What that means is that of all the individuals in 2015 who had some form of official contact with a police officer in the United States in 2015, 0.00175% were killed.

“How many of that 0.00175% were “unarmed” black men who were killed by a white officer?”

About 4%.

What that means factually is this – an unarmed black American who came into contact with a white police officer in 2015 had 0.00007% chance of being killed. 

To put that into context, if you’re a black American between the ages of 15-34, you are many-many times more likely to be killed by another young black American, than you are a white cop.

Cause of death for American black males ages of 15-34:

1- Murder – by another black male.

2- Unintentional injuries (accident)

3- Suicide ages, 15-24, heart disease, ages 25-34

4- Heart disease, ages 15-24, suicide, ages 25-34

5- Cancer

What I do for a living is teach people how to manage and survive violent conflicts. Being a self-defense and combat athlete instructor has been my only career for well over two decades. Helping people learn to stay safe is something I take very seriously. That skill set begins with honesty – honesty about reality, honesty with others, honesty with ourselves. And should a black parent ask my advice as it relates to keeping their son safe, the first thing I would tell them is the truth. The most likely way your child will be die, isn’t suicide, isn’t accidents, and it definitely isn’t at the hands of law enforcement. The most likely cause of death for your son will be murder by another young black male. That’s not racist, that’s not bias, that’s not white privilege – that’s simply a statistical fact. And since I actually care about keeping my students and all the people I love safe, it’s a fact I can’t sweep aside or ignore.

In closing I’d like you to run a thought experiment. It too requires self-honesty. First, please watch the short video. After you do, ask yourself the questions listed below it.

The subtitle at the bottom of the video reads as follows (formatting and caps from the original post):

TINY Female Officer HARASSES Teenage Boy On Bike . . . Then Tries To ASSAULT The Young Man . . . But She’s TOO TINY AND WEAK . . . To BRUTALIZE The Kid!!! (That Cop Is LUCKY . . . The Young Man Was Being RESPECTFUL)

Here are some questions all of us interested in this topic should ask ourselves.

1- What may have happened had the larger male officer not arrived when he did? Is it possible this young man would have attacked this small female officer?

2- If he punched her, or tried to assault her, what recourse would she have, assuming that other officer didn’t arrive?

3- And finally, what if this young male was stupid enough to reach for her gun?

Notice how quickly things escalate. Imagine this much larger male trying to take out this small officers firearm. Then, imagine the kind of publicity and public outrage that would occur had she been forced to defend her own life. The subtitle of the video alone, should give you a glimpse.

Draw your own conclusions, I’ll tell you mine. The parent of this teenager, and statistically that most likely means mother or grandmother since the out of wedlock birthrate in the black community is over 70%, and in high crime neighborhoods it can be in the 90% range – have done a poor job teaching this young man how to respond to, engage with, and respect authority. And that negligence may end up costing him his life. Dignity and a sense of entitlement are always mutually exclusive. This spoiled child lacks such dignity. The kind of dignity a strong father teaches his son. And if this young man ever points a gun at an officer, or attempt to grab a cops gun, and gets shot in the process, he is not a victim of anything besides his own stupidity.

There are two things you can be sure of when the fallacies I’ve addressed above are repeated. First, the person repeating them hasn’t bothered to study the facts. Second, that apathy about the statistical reality of threats betrays something obvious – they really don’t give a damn about the lives of police officers, or, black Americans.

Statistically speaking, the odds of the young man in that video ever being killed by a police officer, even with his destined for failure attitude, are infinitesimally small. If he dies before the age of 35, his most likely killer won’t be an accident, suicide, disease, or cop – if he dies before the age of 35, his most likely killer will be someone just like him.