Monday, August 15, 2016

Remember tasers? Police killing isn't going to stop without them

The recent civil unrest in Milwaukee is yet another indication that the issue of 'police killing black men' is not going away anytime soon. Although a weird quasi-partisan, possibly ethno-nationalist backlash to Black Lives Matter exists, I suspect actual police departments and municipal government officials aren't exactly spoiling for this fight.

Many police departments probably see themselves as having the moral high ground in a general sense. They point out that officers make snap decisions based on probabilistic information, and that the error rate for using deadly force in uncertain situations should justifiably skew towards officers. Critics emphasize how biases--conscious, unconscious and structural--warp officers' mental math enough to make current outcomes unacceptable and discriminatory.

But setting normative issues aside, it's increasingly clear that outrage over police killing has become socially anchored and achieved a reliability that is surely affecting the decisions of municipalities. I would go out on a limb and suggest that most police departments just want to stay out of the news at this point. The smart ones will be examining ways to make viral killings less likely.

Better 'community engagement' strategies might help to reduce biased and bad decisionmaking by cops, and also increase trust among people being policed, helping to de-escalate interactions and post-killing crisis response situations. Proper deployment of body cameras would fall into this bucket. Better officer education is also a good idea, along with labor force reforms in hiring, compensation and performance management. Poor officer quality--in terms of intelligence, conscientiousness, communications skill--is a highly underrated contributing factor in unjustified police killing. Unfortunately it's also politically radioactive.

Which brings us to tasers.

Remember tasers? It seems almost quaint to hark back to the days when unjustified police tasing was a major cause in social justice circles. But since then, smartphone video recording technology has expanded and simplified so as to capture lots of minor police interactions--including many ACTUAL GUN shootings. Whew. How far we've come in the mass recognition of a major social problem.

It appears that the company making tasers has been doing well recently. That's great news, because it indicates what seems obvious to me: that the single biggest way for police departments to reduce their risk of perpetrating a viral killing is to pivot towards the taser.

Given various political, budgetary and institutional constraints, it seems unlikely that we will see a national transformation in the quality and extreme decisionmaking skill of police officers anytime soon. Riots and high-profile officer indictments probably do shift the risk calculation for officers involved in potential shooting situations, but this effect must outweigh any increase in public outrage sensitivity in order to reduce the absolute risk of viral outrage.

Establishing procedures and training norms that greatly favor tasers over firearms--perhaps to where most officers don't carry guns at all in certain situations (like traffic stops)--would be an effective way to reduce unjustified killing without necessarily changing officer quality. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail; removing entirely the possibility of deadly force from situations that are almost by definition instinctual and automatic is probably the only guaranteed way to eliminate unjustified police killing. Technological innovation in non-lethal weaponry is ongoing.

The obvious downside to a taser redoubling policy would be the increase in frequency of situations where officers need a gun but don't have one. This might reduce deterrence, increase crime and increase officer risk. It also might reduce officer recruiting quality and introduce morale issues. Such tradeoffs are unavoidable, but given enough data, creativity and leadership, it seems inevitable that someone somewhere will crack the code and innovate along this gun-vs-taser margin.

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