There are lots of people saying some of the things I have to say, but I have data. So here goes.
Over the weekend in Milwaukee, a 24-year-old African American police officer shot and killed Sylville K. Smith, a 23-year-old African American resident who was at the time of his death fleeing officers and in possession of a loaded handgun containing 23 rounds of ammunition and refusing to drop the weapon.
The incident, according to official accounts, began during a traffic stop in the afternoon. Smith fled the traffic stop. Smith was carrying a handgun taken in a March burglary in Waukesha. The owner reported that 500 rounds of ammunition also were stolen. According to Chief Ed Flynn, Smith refused to drop his weapon when so ordered by a 24-year old African American officer, who shot Smith when Smith made movements sufficient to that officer to fear that Smith was about to fire upon the officer.
Flynn and MPD claim that the body-worn video of the incident clearly exonerates the officer’s actions.
At this point, I would normally lose interest. An armed thief? Pointing a gun at a cop? In America, more than 90 percent of police killings are on their face justified use of deadly force, and another three to five percent are ultimately found to be so. Any other reading of the data is dangerously unhelpful. I do this for a living.
Do I have questions? Of course I do: the burglary of the gun was in March - when did the officer know Smith had it? What was the probable cause for the stop? When did the officer learn Smith was armed? Was there a hit on the vehicle? On Smith? These are straightforward questions, and I anticipate clear and direct and absolutely consistent answers to them.
What’s more, in addition to the MPD investigation, Wisconsin state law requires at least two investigators from an outside agency to lead any fatal officer-involved shooting investigations. In this case, the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation will lead the investigation.
What bothers me a lot is the failure by MPD to release the body-worn video. Last year there was video in only 25% of incidents of officer-involved killings, and in our book, In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians, we found that a failure to share data is one of the biggest points of contention in the communitySelby, N., Singleton, B., and Flosi, E. (2016) “In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians.” St. Augustine, FL: Contextual Press/Calibre Press..
The key finding that can drive the greatest impact from a policy perspective was informed by the very difficulty we faced finding data to support the police account of incidents...Law enforcement agencies simply must find better ways to release more data, and to release it earlier. There is a significant public interest in this data, and the public has a legitimate right to understand how it is being policed. We call for agencies to release more data, more quickly. In America, we believe that sunlight is the best cure for most challenges between government and the people. Police agencies failing to release information look like they’re hiding something, and alternatively, agencies that release what they have, when they have it are invested with the trust of their communities.
Release the Video
There are no procedural rules stopping MPD from releasing the video, nor are there tactical reasons. I’ve heard that the audio is jacked up and out of sync; so what? Not releasing body-worn video is both a huge tactical and communications error.
Riots. Not Protests
These are not “protests.” Protests are what happened in Dallas. These are riots - property destroying, public-endangering, community disrupting riots. One of the few remaining legitimate reporting organizations, Reuters, calls it as it is in the body of their reporting (but not, once again, in their shameful click-bait headline.)
This marks the first time that a clearly armed and dangerous felon is the subject of riots. Media saying that these riots are related to Mike Brown and Tamir Rice are missing a key sea-change: this is the first riot that is shouting for no force to be used on even dangerous felons.
Police referred to Smith as someone with a “lengthy arrest record,” according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Smith’s sister said Smith was a “high-school graduate who played basketball, and complained to the media about the officers’ use of deadly force. He should have been tased, if anything,” she said. “We want everybody to feel our pain.” Kimberly Neal told reporters.
This is a dangerous conflation in the public’s eye of deadly force versus non-deadly force. It is being abetted by dangerously inaccurate and narrative-driven reporting on the part of the national media, particularly by CNN.