05/27/2010

Race a factor in 'blue-on-blue' deaths

Report says PDs must confront overt and unconscious racial bias, finds numerous non-fatal officer-on-officer confrontations

By Deepti Hajela
Associated Press

NEW YORK — A panel convened after two officer-on-officer shootings said police departments must confront both overt and unconscious racial bias among officers to reduce the risk of one officer harming another during "friendly fire."

Gov. David Paterson formed the panel last year after the January 2008 death of Mount Vernon officer Christopher Ridley and the May 2009 death of New York City officer Omar Edwards. Both were black and killed by other police officers who were unaware they were cops.

The task force examined police-on-police confrontations around the country, finding 26 killings during the past three decades. The panel also found numerous other officer-on-officer confrontations that did not lead to a fatality.

The review of the confrontations found that "inherent or unconscious racial bias plays a role in shoot/don't-shoot decisions made by officers of all races and ethnicities," the report said.

Ten of the officers killed were off duty, including Edwards and Ridley. And nine of the those were minorities. The last white off-duty officer to be killed by an on-duty colleague died in 1982, the task force found. The report didn't find any obvious racial or ethnic pattern among officers who were killed while on-duty.

It issued nine recommendations for local, state and federal police agencies that include developing protocols on how to take police action when an officer is off duty and how an off-duty officer should respond if challenged by on-duty police; and developing testing that measures for unconscious bias, training to help reduce any bias, and a policy that mandates all firearm discharges be reported.

Paterson said the report is "groundbreaking work."

"We will consider the implementation of the recommendations outlined in the report in the coming weeks," he said.

The report commended the New York Police Department for already taking steps to try to measure unconscious bias. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly called the report "thoughtful and comprehensive."

"Its recommendations, many of which are based on initiatives undertaken by the NYPD following the tragic death of Detective Omar Edwards, are worthy of consideration by police agencies nationwide," he said. "Hopefully, the Task Force report will help prevent other law enforcement families from experiencing such a devastating loss."

The death of an officer at the hands of another officer is "devastating" for police departments, said Christopher Stone, criminal justice professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and head of the task force.

He said the recommendations can also help with confrontations between civilians and officers, where a shooting is more likely to occur than in officer-on-officer confrontations. If officers are trained to reduce bias, "that's going to help right across the board," he said.

Maki Haberfeld, a professor of police studies at John Jay Criminal College of Justice who wasn't involved with the study, said it's nearly impossible to separate race from these incidents, but not because officers are inherently racist. Police are trained to identify suspects based on body movements and behavioral patterns, but also on the types of paradigms in the neighborhood, she said.

"You just can't build a neutral, objective standard. It has to be based on what happened in the past," she said. "It is much more complicated than just saying race is a factor in these cases."

But Haberfeld said she favors any training that would diffuse or minimize stereotypes police officers may have.

Copyright 2010 Associated Press

Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.

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