Can police shootings be predicted

Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect number of people shot and killed by police in 2019. In the 15 Phoenix shootings, 12 people died. 

In 2019, Phoenix police officers shot at 15 people, a significant drop from the year before, when the department had the grim distinction of having the most police shootings in the nation.

That year, Phoenix police were involved in 44 shootings. Twenty-two people died.

That's a 66% drop compared with 2018 and marksthe fewest number of shootings the Phoenix Police Department has had in the past decade. In 2010, the department had 18 shootings, the second-lowest in the past 10 years.

It's unclear why there was such a dramatic drop this year.

After the negative nationwide publicity on last year's numbers, the department implemented several policy changes, some of which had been stalled for years.

Community advocates credit the added scrutiny and policy changes with the improvement. But they say there's still more work to do, including creating a civilian review board that would hold officers accountable for each shooting.

"If they're responding to public scrutiny and this problem was within their control all along, then what we can take from that is that shining a light on the department, creating transparency and accountability through public scrutiny, that is an important function and we should encourage that," attorney Jamaar Williams said.

Williams serves on a new city committee to recommend Police Department policy changes and is also a Maricopa County public defender.

In Arizona, the number of shootings is also significantly down this year.

In 2018, there were 117 police shooting cases. In 2019, there have been about 50, based on inquiries by The Arizona Republic to the state's 15 county attorney's offices.

Police say the trend in shootings can't be predicted and public sentiment doesn't drive how officers do their jobs.

"If the public outcry is driving that, then I would be surprised," said Lt. Ben Leuschner, president of the Phoenix Police Sergeants and Lieutenants Association. "Honestly, I hope police officers are simply still going out there doing their jobs and following policies and procedures."

While fewer police shootings occurred this year, the shootings were more often deadly.

In the 15 Phoenix shootings, 12 people died. 

“I’m glad there’s been a reduction,” said Viri Hernandez, director of Poder in Action, a Phoenix-based advocacy group that has been critical of Phoenix police use-of-force cases. "But we should definitely be cautious because something we’ve noticed is that the shootings are becoming more deadly.”

Phoenix this year also continued to have a higher number of shootings than other cities of its size. 

An Arizona Republic analysis of Phoenix police shootings from 2011 to 2018 found the Police Department outpaced similar-sized and larger cities. 

Phoenix police, who serve a city with 1.6 million residents, had an average of 17 shootings per every 1 million residents in the eight-year span — more than New York, Los Angeles, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and San Diego. 

In 2019, Phoenix police are still on track to outpace a majority of those cities with nine shootings per every 1 million.

Williams said, "I'm not so quick to pat the Police Department in the back. The nature of some of these shootings in 2019 is kind of repulsive."

Among the fatal shootings this year was that of 30-year-old Henry Rivera, who police mistook for a murder suspect for whom they were searching. 

"It makes me angry because it’s not fair. It’s not just a little mistake," Rivera's girlfriend, Natalie Mejia, told The Arizona Republic. "They took his life. They took my kid's dad. They took my partner."

The Phoenix City Council spent $149,000 to have the National Police Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, investigate its 2018 shootings. In April, the foundation released a report that offered little explanation of why shootings were up but included many recommendations.

Among them:

  • Document when officers point their guns at people.
  • Improve consistency in collecting data on police shootings.
  • Continue to improve training.
  • Increase transparency by sharing data on police shootings, use-of-force cases and department policies.
  • Conduct meaningful community engagement through public events and surveys of the community and police officers.
  • Increase the presence of certain police units.
  • Conduct a study to determine whether the Police Department has enough officers to meet the community's demands.
  • Review the records management system to improve efficiency.
  • Find alternatives for how the city can handle people who have a mental illness.

The Police Department has so far implemented four of those, including requiring officers to report whenever they point a gun at a person, and five more are ongoing. 

"The Phoenix Police Department takes great pride in being an adaptable and learning organization," Sgt. Mercedes Fortune, a spokeswoman for the Police Department, said. "The changes which were suggested by the (National Police Foundation) study were welcomed and some are already in place."

According to a study published in May 2017 in the Public Administration Review, an academic journal, police departments that require officers to report when they've pointed their firearm at a person have "significantly lower rates of gun deaths by police officers."

"This requirement may cause officers to use more caution when considering using force by pointing their guns and may demonstrate to officers an agency commitment to best practices that protect civilians from unnecessary use of force," the study stated.

The study also found that such policies are "not associated with higher rates of gun deaths of police officers, suggesting that the policy does not endanger officers." 

The Police Department also has issued body cameras for its nearly 3,000 sworn officers. 

The department also has begun to produce videos with summaries of individual police shootings that include on-body camera footage, 911 calls and a police narration of the events that led to the shooting. The intent is to get the information to the public more quickly, as recommended. 

It has improved the data it collects and makes public on shootings. It started posting data on how many shootings occur annually, broken down by the race of the person shot. It started with 2017 statistics.

In June, the City Council voted to research early-intervention computer software systems that would analyze officers' use-of-force patterns. The research is ongoing. 

The goal of this system is to determine whether the Police Department can determine when an officer may be more likely to have an issue with using force and intervene before the officer is involved in multiple use-of-force cases. 

The Phoenix City Council has not set a date for when it will vote on a civilian review board to probe police use-of-force cases. It is still discussing what type of board and how much power it should have.

Advocates have pushed for such a board for years, saying it could determine what is driving officers to shoot people and hold them accountable if deadly force was not a reasonable response.

"It will provide an opportunity for victims of police violence to say, 'This happened to me,' to someone who is not the police," said Parris Wallace, director of Black Phoenix Organizing Collective, an advocacy group that has focused on police relations with black residents.

Leuschner, the president of the Phoenix Police Sergeants and Lieutenants Association, said he could support a citizens review board as long as officers are allowed to be part of it. The more people that look at a case, the better the outcome would be, he said. 

Separately, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego in June created a committee of residents tasked with recommending additional policy changes for the department. The committee is supposed to make its recommendations in June. 

The committee is made up of activists, lawyers including Williams and former police officers, among others.

The Phoenix Police Department didn't say what it believes is behind the decline in shootings.

Fortune, the police spokeswoman, dismissed the notion that the dip in police shootings is attributable to heightened public scrutiny. But she said the department takes pride in the changes it has made in the past year to be more transparent.

"We will continue to seek out opportunities to identify the needs of our community," she said. "A strong police department needs the support of its community and the community needs the support of the police department to achieve the goals of peace and safety." 

Department officials in the past have said that increases in police shootings are connected to rising violence against officers, giving them little control over how many shootings may occur in a given year.

"I don't subscribe to the theory that somehow police officers are out there to look for people to shoot," Leuschner said. "I subscribe to the theory that police officers react to a given situation, and more aggravated assaults with weapons on police officers will equal more police shootings."

The number of assaults on officers jumped from 651 in 2016 to 991 in 2017, according to data from Phoenix. In comparison, there were 25 police shootings in 2016 and 21 in 2017.

As shootings in Phoenix rose in 2018, the number of assaults on officers fell to 951, according to the Police Foundation study. But the number of assaults on officers from people with a firearm increased in 2018, going from 36 in 2016 to 87 in 2018, the Foundation study reported.

Leuschner said that in an ideal world there wouldn't be any police shootings, but it also would be dangerous for a police department to aim to have zero shootings a year. 

He said Phoenix is going in the right direction, mentioning the effort to provide the public with the videos of police shootings.

"We've made an effort to become more transparent," he said.

Gallego said in a statement that she supports how Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams has balanced the well-being of her officers and the safety of the city's residents.

"The chief has faced this challenge head-on with poise, rationality and fortitude, a testament to her leadership abilities," Gallego said. "She has had to make difficult decisions, particularly during this past year, and I support the decisions she has made, including the pursuit of modernizations within her department."

Phoenix City ManagerEd Zuercher in a statement said the Police Department has worked to be more transparent since Williams became the chief in 2016. 

As the Police Department grapples with the issue of police shootings, Zuercher said, he believes Williams will continue to improve the department.

"We are an organization that supports continuous improvement with our day-to-day functions," he said. "That’s been the strength of the city of Phoenix, Chief Williams and the Police Department — a willingness to review our practices and make change."

Uriel Garcia covers public-safety issues in Arizona. Reach him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ujohnnyg.

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THE ARIZONA REPUBLIC TEAM

Research and reporting: Uriel J. Garcia, Bree Burkitt
Data: Uriel J. Garcia
Data visualization: Uriel J. Garcia, Will Flannigan, Chris Amico, Stan Wilson and Annette Meade
Digital production and copy editing: Joshua Ling
Videography: Cheryl Evans, Thomas Hawthorne, Nick Oza
Editing: Alia Beard Rau, Kathy Tulumello
Social media: Danielle Woodward

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