Police Shootings Put Cities, Cops On Alert

It's been a bloody start to 2011 for law enforcement. In a bizarre sequence of events, 11 officers in five states were shot in a 24-hour period between Sunday and Monday of this week. The most brazen attack happened in Detroit where a gunman opened fire inside a police precinct. Host Michel Martin talks about the uptick in violence against law enforcement with Jon Shane an assistant professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And finally, we hate to end the program on a sad note, but we think this is important. It's been a violent and tragic start to the New Year for law enforcement.

In the past week, two offices in St. Petersburg and two others in Miami, Florida were shot and killed. Others in Indianapolis, in Lincoln City and Port Orchard, Oregon, were shot and wounded. In the most brazen of the recent attacks on Sunday, a gunman walked into a police precinct in Detroit and reportedly started firing indiscriminately and wounded four officers before he was shot and killed.

We wanted to talk more about what might be behind this recent spate of violence directed at law enforcement, so we called Jon Shane. He's a former Newark Police Department captain. He is now an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice within the City University of New York.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us, Jon Shane.

Professor JON SHANE (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York): Hello, Michel. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And I just want to say, in the spirit of full disclosure - it may or may not be relevant that I come from a police family - that six members of my immediate family have been members of the NYPD at some point. So I just want to let people know that, if they feel that's important.

So Jon, let's talk about the numbers. Fourteen officers have been killed in the line of duty so far in 2011. Eleven law enforcement officers were shot in a 24-hour period between Sunday and Monday. Now the International Union of Police Associations was quoted by MSNBC.com as saying this is not a fluke, that there's a perception among officers in the field that there's a war on cops going on. Do you see it that way?

Prof. SHANE: Well, there's certainly something to be said for that. I think it follows some bit of a larger trend in the United States, that there's this overriding sense of entitlement and don't tread on me. And law enforcement stands between the law-abiding people and this chaos that's going to erupt, that these would-be criminals would have if they get their way. And it's, well, police work is intrinsically dangerous, and just kind of highlights the larger social movement that's afoot.

MARTIN: Well, there are different opinions about that, as you know. And I do want to just mention that in terms of total fatalities in 2011 so far, we are exactly where we were last year at this time.

Prof. SHANE: Right.

MARTIN: Both 14 on the 20th of January of 2010, 14 in 2011. But what's changed is the role of guns. Last year, there were more traffic accidents, and this year it's more gunfire. So some might argue that it's not the social climate. It's access to guns. And so I'd like to get your perspective on that.

Prof. SHANE: Well, it's a little too early to tell. Let's wait and see what the numbers bear at the end of the year. By the time we get to December, let's see how many officers have been killed by gunfire. If the trend continues as it is now, I suspect that it'll be higher.

MARTIN: What is your sense - I know one of your areas of expertise is - and your passions is the idea that we need to use the data that we have to come to better conclusions. So are there things about these spate incidents that we should be looking at to try to figure out if there is a pattern? And if so what is it?

Prof. SHANE: Yeah. Absolutely. One of the biggest things is that research agenda on police tactics and those sorts of things that are going to keep officers safe is very, very sparse. There has to be a bigger agenda from the academic community to try to decipher what exactly is going on with these shootings. We don't have enough data right now to make these established patterns. There have been a couple studies that have done by the FBI - one in '92, one in '97, one in 2006 - about violent encounters. And they've been very, very good, except we don't have a good comparison group.

And the problem is all of the incidents involving deaths and assaults on police officers have looked exclusively at that incident. They haven't compared those same sets of circumstances to incidents where police officers have survived. So, for example, I stop a car today for a red light, and I don't get killed. There's no record, there's no official of anything because there's no data to capture. So tomorrow, when a police officer stopped somebody for red light violation and that incident turns into a gunfight, we have nothing to compare it to. And that's where the research falls down. But there's no question we have to turn to the data to find out exactly where the trends are headed.

MARTIN: So you think that there should be more emphasis on best practices that can then be shared. Why do you think there is not?

Prof. SHANE: Tactics and strategy are something that are not that sexy for the academic community. And because policing in the United States is such a fragmented institution - with 17, almost 18,000 police departments - there are not enough incidents to go around for any one organization to pull it all together. And because that one organization is generally going to be somebody at the national or state level, it gets pushed to the back burner with other things.

And in the academic community, we want to look at root causes. You know, what are the social implications, the familial setting, the external factors that lead offenders to do these things? And that's important, of course. But by the same token, we need to look at the incidents themselves and the circumstances surrounding the encounter to be able to find out what the interactions are between police officers and offenders so we can figure those things out.

MARTIN: So there's kind of a disconnect between kind of the deep thinkers in the field and the people who are actually doing the work in the field. Is that partly what you're telling me?

Prof. SHANE: That is certainly some of it. And what we also need to call our practitioners to do is a better job at doing after-action reporting. Every one of these incidents should have a very, very aggressively read-through on all the facts and circumstances that led up to it, and then have a published document that comes out at the end that's distributed widely throughout the law enforcement community, so everybody can learn from that. But I don't see a lot of that, either.

MARTIN: Can I ask you about one other issue? This is a piece that was written by a police sergeant in Las Vegas. And he was referencing an earlier piece that talked about fighting a war, with regards to public perception. And he says that this is not a war. That by definition, you know, there is a difference between being a soldier and being a law enforcement, being a civilian who's entrusted with protecting the community.

And by - and kind of by inference, there's also this ongoing question of the distrust between police departments, even those that are minority-led in minority communities - you know, African-Americans and Latinos, in particular. And there are those who argue that this kind of mistrust which seems to kind of flare up over, you know, at various points and go away and then flare up again, is also part of a problem, that there is just a - that there just needs to be more conversation about mutual respect, you know, for example.

And, of course, most recently in Oakland, the shooting Oscar Grant on New Year's Day by a Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority officer, who - and all the trauma that that engendered. And, of course, in New York, a lot of incidents like that. What's your take on that perspective?

Prof. SHANE: Well, I clearly agree with the fact that you cannot characterize the war on crime the same as any given war. That's clear. In fact, I've published an article about that. Because when you do that, everybody becomes your enemy, and you can't discern the enemy from the law-abiding and you get enmeshed in this downward spiral where everybody gets treated the same. So that's clear, and I agree with that sergeant's take on the perception of war.

Police departments also are not doing enough to outreach to all types of communities. There's not a good understanding about police tactics and why police officers do certain things and how police officers need to keep themselves safe. And on the same token, communities don't understand what it's like to be a police officer and to be the one who is at a complete disadvantage almost all the time. When you stop a car, you're at a disadvantage. When you show up at someone's house for a domestic dispute, you're at a disadvantage. When you answer a burglar alarm or panic alarm or a robbery call, you're at a complete disadvantage.

And what we have a tendency to do is look at the situations with the benefit of 2020 hindsight and critique everything the officer has done and say, well, look, you missed a step here and you forgot this and you didn't abide by this and you went here and this, that and the other thing, without understanding what it's like to be in that officer's shoes. And placing members of the community in the officer's shoes ahead of time and giving them a real good education about what it's like to be a police officer can stave off some of those problems.

We did that in Newark, through something called the Citizen's Police Academy, and then we had a clergy academy where we took appointed leaders of the community, civic leaders in the clergy and neighborhood association groups and brought them through a 12-week course in the Newark Police Department about how the operation goes.

MARTIN: And I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I want us to be civil to each other as much as I can, but we are almost out of time.

Prof. SHANE: Sure.

MARTIN: So we're going to leave it there for now, Professor Shane. Jon Shane is a former captain in the Newark Police Department. He's currently an assistant professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College in New York, and he was kind enough to join us from member station WBGO in New York.

Professor Shane, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for your good work.

Prof. SHANE: You're always welcome, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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