TURES: What evidence shows us about police behaviors and police reform

Published 5:03 pm Thursday, June 11, 2020

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As the U.S. experiences yet another senseless death of a citizen at the hands of police, it’s easy to conclude that there is no progress anywhere, and police reform is useless. That’s not what evidence shows from studies done by Campaign Zero, which works with Black Lives Matter.

On June 1, Samuel Sinyangwe posted his research on police killings. There is no comprehensive federal database on the subject, so he relies on several that show little change in the number of deaths, though the timing matters: deaths from the police decline from 2014 to 2016, then rebound, according to sites like Fatal Encounters, which codes data on that subject.

Location matters too. Despite George Floyd’s tragic death in Minneapolis, police killings are generally declining in urban areas. “Police departments in America’s 30 largest cities killed 30 percent fewer people in 2019 than in 2013, the year before the Ferguson protests began, according to the Mapping Police Violence database,” Sinyangwe writes on the 538.com site (though most of the declines were 2014-2017). So for those who conclude that all of these are happening in cities, and nothing has changed, the evidence shows otherwise.

But police killings are unfortunately on the rise in suburbs and rural areas, explaining why overall, the numbers appear to have changed little nationwide.  It’s the same for incarceration and arrest rates; they are down in big cities, but on the rise in rural areas. This is one reason for the decline in urban police killings, as many of them happen during arrests.

Reforms adopted by big cities also explain their decline in police killings. “These declining arrest rates have been attributed, in part, to reforms reducing enforcement of low-level offenses such as marijuana possession, disorderly conduct, loitering and prostitution.” Sinyangwe notes.

Campaign Zero also finds that cities adopting more restrictive use-of-force policies once recommended by the previous Justice Department also had fewer police shootings. And some of these reforms came about because of public pressure and protests.

Given that not as many suburban areas and rural towns have adopted these policies, it could explain why cities have had more success in reducing police killings. “There’s still a lot we need to investigate about how policing is changing in rural and suburban areas. More Latinos are being killed by police in suburban areas than before, according to Mapping Police Violence data, while more white people are being killed in rural areas than before… Gun-related suicides and gun deaths in general appear to be increasing in rural areas, which might also be spilling over into policing practices and responses,” the Campaign Zero co-founder adds.

There’s a push to reduce funding for the police, even eliminate police departments. The numbers definitely don’t support that. The evidence is showing that police reforms are working, and need to be adopted in all places, not just a number of big cities. Suburban areas and rural places should adopt these as well. And recommendations made by the Justice Department in 2015 must not be abandoned, as they were in 2017.

There’s a final reason not to disband your local police department. Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, and other tragic cases of needless killings did not die at the hands of police officers. I would trust our local police department, and the officers I have encountered at other cities, over that alternative.