To cut down on police violence, cut down on crime

Abraham N. Tennenbaum

May 02, 1991|By Abraham N. Tennenbaum

THE VIDEO recording of the brutal beating of a motorist by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department caused the nation to pay attention to the painful subject of police violence. Unfortunately, all the signs show that the attention is concentrated in the wrong direction.

In the near future we will probably be flooded by complaints about violent police behavior going back for decades. We will hear explanations by respected professors, who will present lengthy analysis of how police think and act. They will also suggest expensive programs to reduce police brutality, and they will ask for big grants to do their research.

Politicians will add accounts of police misbehavior to their speeches and will promise their constituents a "clean and honest police department."

Police chiefs around the country will be more practical and will simply order their officers to avoid trouble at any cost, with tacit threats to those who cause any unnecessary "inconvenience."

Probably, the answers that we will get from the actors involved in this process will not include the most obvious and simplest of all: The easiest way to reduce police brutality is to reduce the crime level. Any other method will bring about a minor cosmetic change for the short term, but it will accomplish no more than that.

The literature about police use of force shows clearly that police violence is correlated with the number of dangerous confrontations between officers and the public. Put another way, the more encounters police officers have with criminals, the more problems will develop. The more times police officers use force, the more chance that they will use it in the wrong way and with the wrong means.

Research I have conducted recently proves this point again. This research covers all known cases in which police officers on duty killed civilians in "justifiable" circumstances -- police homicides. The aim was to try to find which variables are correlated to police use of deadly force, with the hope that by knowing more about the phenomenon, we will also have the tools to reduce it.

The research included all known cases of police homicides in the years 1976 through 1989, based on official reports of the FBI. The total number of cases nationwide was 5,065, about 362 a year or one a day. All these data were compared and tested against the criminal homicides for these years. By using sophisticated statistical techniques, we concluded that the best theory to explain the results is the theory of "risky situations." In simple terms, when police officers are involved in riskier situations, the number of police homicides increases. Other variables, such as police training, department policy, etc., were found not to affect the total numbers of incidents.

These results were reinforced by another research project that measured the practical influence of a Supreme Court decision on what constitutes acceptable police behavior. In March 1985, after a long argument about the right of police officers to shoot fleeing criminals, the Supreme Court decided (Garner vs. Memphis Police Department) to restrain the authority of the police to shoot in such cases.

Some scholars were happy with this decision, but our research shows clearly that the Supreme Court decision changed neither the frequency nor the types of police homicides. The explanation is simple. In almost all of the cases, the police officers did not have sufficient control over the situation, so that their behavior was only a reaction to the criminal's behavior.

The lesson from these studies on police violence in general is very unequivocal. It is not only impossible to reduce police violence by using administrative rules or bureaucratic techniques; it is also impossible to reduce police homicides by these methods. The reason is the same in both cases. Most of the time, the control of the situation is not in the hands of the police officer. The rule is clear: More contact between police officers and criminals will necessarily lead to more cases of unjustifiable use of force. To reduce police violence, we have to look for solutions to the overall crime problem.

Every governor, mayor, police chief or ordinary citizen who wants to deal seriously with police brutality has to look at it in a broad context. Police violence is not a result of poor training, inadequate leadership or "bad apples" among the cops. On the contrary, police violence is one of the byproducts of crime, not a separate phenomenon. Misunderstanding this crucial point amounts to misunderstanding of the function and behavior of police.

Abraham N. Tennenbaum is a former police lieutenant and currently a researcher in the Institute of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of Maryland College Park.

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