What 'In Context' reveals about officer-involved shootings of unarmed subjects

In Context delves deeply into the open source materials on 153 incidents in which an unarmed civilian died in the encounter


Following the controversial shooting of 40-year-old Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, the narrative that police target unarmed individuals — and disproportionately so, African Americans — in officer-involved shootings has been further perpetuated. While that investigation is ongoing, and not all of the facts of the case are known to anyone other than Officer Betty Shelby and others cops present at that incident, the broader issue of police shootings of unarmed subjects remains in the national spotlight. 

The Washington Post chronicled civilians killed by police in 2015 and found that more than nine-tenths of them were armed at the time — “more than half of those killed in 2015 had guns, 16 percent had knives and five percent attempted to hit officers with their vehicles,” the Post reported. But what of that nine percent of shootings that involved an unarmed subject. The raw number provides little value for individuals seeking to answer the questions, “Why were they shot? What was the totality of the circumstance? What is the context?”

A new book, aptly entitled In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians, addresses precisely that issue. Authored by Nick Selby, Ben Singleton, and Ed Flosi, In Context delves deeply into the open source materials on 153 incidents in which an unarmed civilian died in the encounter. Selby is a police detective and law enforcement data expert who founded the StreetCred Police Killings in Context Data Project in 2015. Singleton is a veteran police officer, trainer and investigator. Flosi has is a use-of-force instructor and expert witness with 27 years of practical and academic experience in law enforcement. Together, they put together a truly compelling read on this important topic. 

A new book, aptly entitled In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians, delves deeply into the open source materials on 153 incidents in which an unarmed civilian died in the encounter.
A new book, aptly entitled In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians, delves deeply into the open source materials on 153 incidents in which an unarmed civilian died in the encounter.

Deeper than simply numbers
“The numbers that just count the dead don’t tell you why the police got involved,” Flosi told PoliceOne. “They don't tell you whether the person was armed and attacking someone, or cowering in a corner. They don't tell you if he was on drugs, mentally ill or physically disabled. They don’t tell you if the person was overdosing on Flakka and smashing windows and after they were handcuffed they had a heart attack.”

When Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on military personnel at a Chattanooga recruiting station, the cops shooting him to stop that threat were by any standard justified. Statistically speaking that type of incident represents the majority of OIS cases in the United States. 

“Even the Washington Post agrees that nine in 10 of the people killed by police were attacking, armed and or refusing to drop a weapon. Our book wanted to differentiate that kind of case from one like that of an officer who shoots Walter Scott in the back. The narrative claims many incidents are like that. We wanted to find out if it was true,” Flosi said.

The authors felt that the Walter Scott case was an outlier, but when 1,000 people every year die after confrontations with police, there was no data to support that conclusion.

“We all felt that when the police kill someone with a weapon, it’s almost always justified. But unarmed people seem to non-cops to be not dangerous. We decided that the best way to do it was to find the group that was most likely to be of unjustified use of deadly force. We decided to focus on unarmed civilians who died, because those were potentially the worst cases,” Flosi said.

Nick Selby, another co-author, created a technology called the StreetCred Police Killings in Context (PKIC) database, which is an “open-standard database that includes incidents (other than traffic accidents) in which an unarmed civilian was killed during an encounter with American police,” according to the StreetCred website. This data was critical in identifying the most appropriate cases for analysis. 

In addition to leveraging the technology created by Selby’s company, the team collected more than 70 data points for each case using media reports, police press releases, court testimony, video and audio evidence, transcripts, coroner autopsy and toxicology reports, prosecutor statements and other official statements. They also interviewed agencies and specifically requested clarifications and further information.

Flosi conceded that there are limitations to using public sources. “Each case was highly problematic, and in some states finding the race, age, gender and records about the officer was impossible,” Flosi said. 

A compelling read
The book opens with a section about the data, its shortcomings and strengths and the key findings of the author’s research. It discusses how police data can and cannot be used and specifically addresses several controversial questions: 

Do police target black people? 
Do they treat minorities differently? 
Are police racist? 
Do people get stopped for driving while Hispanic? 

“All our answers are keyed and cited with the data,” Flosi said.

The authors address contributing factors such as drug or alcohol intoxication, the mental health of the subjects, whether or not a crime was in progress at the time of the officer contact, whether or not a TASER was deployed at any point during the encounter and other elements which could contribute to a better understanding of the totality of the circumstances. 

The second section of the book is a short overview of 153 cases in which an unarmed civilian died after an encounter with the police in 2015 and a brief analysis from each of the three authors on the justification (or lack thereof) of the case. 

Key findings
In 2015, more than half — 52 percent — of the deaths of unarmed civilians after a police encounter involved someone suffering from serious mental illness, physical disability, drug overdose, or two of those, or three. Yet our nation still treats these conditions as outliers in terms of funding and training. 

There was video in less than 25 percent of all incidents. Everyone knows that, in two cases, eyewitness-shot video was crucial in showing that officers had lied to investigators. Fewer know that in two other cases, video exonerated officers. But in all four of these cases, the video was taken by bystanders or surveillance cameras, not by police-operated video. Police need more body worn video and programs for its storage and analysis. 

“We know that police did not target those who ultimately died. Our data reveal that it is citizens who initiate most of the deadly encounters that don’t begin with traffic stops. In 88 percent of those cases, citizens — and not the police — initiated the encounter by asking an officer for help. In nine out of 10 cases, it was a member of the community and not a police officer who selected the person to be contacted. Media narratives that state the police are more likely to target black people in deadly encounters are, statistically speaking, demonstrably wrong.”

Flosi said that we cannot know one way or the other whether police treat non-whites differently than whites. The data does not exist to measure this. 

Belying a powerful media narrative to the contrary, nearly half of the 153 cases involved no shooting, and the decedent died by other cause.

For police and the public
Selby, Singleton and Flosi believe that the real data is more complex than police officers might think, and they have some evidence this is true. Informal surveys conducted by the authors found that in general, those identifying themselves as police supporters expected one or two cases to involve unjustified use of force, whereas activists and other police skeptics felt a much higher number (as high as 30) would be found. In fact, by the authors’ consensus, only 10 cases — 6.5 percent — appeared to be unjustified, based on facts as they understood them at the time of publication. 

“It is important to note that while this number may seem high to some readers, we believe it is a function of the very specific sample set criteria we selected and would not representative of use of force in general. Remember, our sample set only included those persons that died proximate to the arrest process and were unarmed at the time of the encounter,” Flosi said. 

This highlights the author’s primary key finding that nobody in the public has enough information from either the police or the media to actually form an opinion about how we are being policed.

“We are, all of us, both cops and civilians, being led by narrative,” Flosi said.

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