There is an epidemic of police officers murdering unarmed black men and using deadly force against innocent civilians—that is the false narrative frequently repeated by politicians, activists, and reporters in the wake of police shootings. After being subjected to years of hyperbole and disinformation, the majority of Americans believe the use of deadly force by police is far more common than it actually is and that these shootings are symptomatic of broader problems between law enforcement and the black community. Police are losing the propaganda war.
Now is the time for police to restore trust by debunking negative myths and arming the public with facts.
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center national survey, a majority of police officers believe high-profile shootings of black citizens have increased tensions with the black community, making it harder and more dangerous for officers to do their jobs. Anti-police rhetoric is often peppered with falsehoods and mischaracterizations and according to a Pew survey, 81% of police officers believe the media treat police unfairly. The media attention on a handful of shooting incidents gives the false impression that these incidents are representative of a larger problem.
Most people are familiar with the “Hands up, don’t shoot” movement, but few know that Michael Brown’s hands weren’t raised when he was shot or that the Department of Justice later cleared the officer in the shooting. Similarly, most people have heard the names Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling, but don’t know all of the facts behind these incidents. A lack of knowledge about both the frequency and dynamics of violent encounters, coupled with allegations of racism, have contributed to a highly inaccurate portrayal of police.
Arguably, the most damaging myth facing law enforcement today is that of racist police killings. This falsehood is easily debunked by showing the statistically insignificant number of bad shootings compared to more than 750,000 sworn police officers in the United States, who make face-to-face contact with at least 20% of citizens, resulting in over ten million arrests every year. In 2017, there were 987 people shot by the police, of which only 20 were unarmed blacks, according to the Washington Post database. Even if every one of those 20 shootings were deemed wrongful, which is not true, these numbers would not indicate an epidemic in a population of 327 million people.
Blacks make up 13.3% of the population and yet they were 22.5% of the people shot and killed by police in 2017, according to the database. This disparity is said to be the result of racism, yet it can be explained by other confounding variables. For example, the black community has above average levels of poverty, urban residency, violent crimes, and young men, all of which are correlated with crime. Further, a 2016 study, by Harvard Professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr., found no racial differences in officer-involved shootings when accounting for contextual factors. For a more detailed analysis of race and police shootings, read End the Myth.
Aside from racial arguments, the police use of deadly force is rare, with only 27% of police officers ever firing their guns on-duty, according to a 2017 Pew survey. This is in striking contrast to 83% of the public who believe the typical police officer has fired a gun at least once and to the 33% who think officers fired their guns multiple times per year.
Another myth is that police shoot an excessive number of bullets, as the media implied in the recent police shooting of Stephon Clark. In that incident, police fired a total of 20-rounds, yet only 40% struck Clark and all of the shooting was over in approximately four-seconds. Low accuracy is common in police shootings and New York City Police officers had a hit-rate of only 18%, according to a 2008 Rand study. Police are trained to shoot until a threat is gone, not to stop after expending a specific amount of rounds.
Other myths suggest that less-than-lethal force should be used with armed suspects or that officers should shoot to wound. These criticisms can be easily dismissed by explaining when and why deadly forced is authorized, that action always beats reaction, that less-than-lethal options often fail, and the physiological effects on officers during shootings.
Police need to correct the false narrative, because society cannot exist without the rule of law and trust in police is necessary to achieve that end. Public perception is almost as important as enforcement, because while citizens need protection, they also need to feel safe. Most police agencies already acknowledge this when they invest in randomized patrol, a law enforcement technique proven ineffective at deterring or solving crime, but one that gives the appearance of security.
The solution is for police to reshape the anti-police narrative by aggressively educating the public. To start, law enforcement agencies need to overcome the institutional culture of secrecy and become more transparent, touting their triumphs and the good work they do everyday. Police should publicly release information about shootings as quickly as possible, explain how officers react to threats, and put incidents into context by releasing broader statistics. When officers do something wrong, agencies should acknowledge the problem, discipline the officers quickly, and remind citizens that bad officers are the minority.
Agencies can also educate journalists and politicians in citizen’s academies, which use interactive scenarios to explain use-of-force issues. While this type of training isn’t feasible on a large scale, demonstrations can be filmed and distributed widely on social media. Recreating a recent controversial shooting to explain the actions of police officers can quickly change the public’s perception of the incident.
Despite the attention the media has given to anti-police protests, approximately 76% of Americans still have “a great deal of respect” for the police, according to a Gallup poll. Now is the time to arm citizens with the information they need to discredit false narratives.