Bias Seen in ‘Police-on-Police’ Shootings
By Al Baker
MAY 27, 2010
A governor’s task force studying mistaken-identity confrontations between police officers found that racial bias, unconscious or otherwise, played a clear role in scores of firearms encounters over the years, most significantly in cases involving off-duty officers who are killed by their colleagues.
The task force, formed last June by Gov. David A. Paterson to examine confrontations between officers and the role that race might have played, conducted what it said it believed was the first “nationwide, systematic review of mistaken-identity, police-on-police shootings” by an independent panel outside of law enforcement.
“There may well be an issue of race in these shootings, but that is not the same as racism,” said Zachary W. Carter, a former United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, who served as the task force’s vice chairman. “Research reveals that race may play a role in an officer’s instantaneous assessment of whether a particular person presents a danger or not.”
The report by the task force found that 26 police officers were killed in the United States over the past 30 years by colleagues who mistook them for criminals. It also found that it was increasingly “officers of color” who died in this manner, including 10 of the 14 killed since 1995.
More specifically, in cases involving a victim who was an off-duty officer, the task force reported that 9 of the 10 officers killed in friendly fire encounters in the United States since 1982 were black or Latino, including Omar J. Edwards, a New York City officer who was fatally shot in Harlem last May by an on-duty colleague, and Officer Christopher Ridley, an off-duty Mount Vernon officer shot and killed by at least three uniformed Westchester County officers in White Plains in January 2008.
The last killing of a white off-duty officer by an on-duty colleague in a mistaken-identity case in the United States happened in 1982.
“In short, there are many issues besides race present in these shootings, and the role that race plays is not simple or straightforward,” according to the report, which was delivered to Mr. Paterson this week.
But in searching for trends, the report said the conclusion of the task force was clear: “Inherent or unconscious racial bias plays a role in ‘shoot/don’t-shoot,’ decisions made by officers of all races and ethnicities.”
The task force, headed by Christopher E. Stone, the Guggenheim professor of criminal justice at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, made nine recommendations — directed at local, state and federal levels of government, including the United States Justice Department, he said.
It commended the New York Police Department for initiating a program, in the wake of the Edwards shooting, to test officers for unconscious racial bias, something Mr. Stone said he hoped would be replicated across the country.
Laurie O. Robinson, assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs in the Justice Department, said the recommendations were something it would “review and consider very seriously.” She said she had shared them with colleagues.
The recommendations are aimed at “blunting” any unconscious racial bias, Mr. Carter said. They call for establishing protocols for off-duty conduct, increasing testing for racial bias among officers and improving how police departments manage such encounters when they occur within their ranks. One focused on prosecutors, calling for them to disclose publicly as much detail as possible about such encounters, and early on, to avoid having facts disappear in a fog of grand jury secrecy.
The 67-page report outlined the facts of the Edwards and Ridley shootings, as well as some of the 24 other fatal encounters since 1981. The task force spoke with current and former officers. It drew on three public hearings held around the state — in Albany in November and in Harlem and in White Plains in December. It identified several trends in reviewing the cases and in analyzing existing research on the topic.
Most of the 26 victims were male. Of the 10 off-duty victims, 8 worked in plainclothes, and 6 worked undercover.
Of the 26 fatal shootings, 5, including Officer Ridley’s case, involved an off-duty officer who came across a crime in progress and moved to help other officers or a civilian, the report found. In five other cases, including the Edwards shooting, an off-duty officer was a crime victim and then tried to make an arrest or to take police action, the report found. The only other New York City case the group studied involved Officer Eric Hernandez, who was off duty when he was shot by a colleague who responded to a 911 call and saw him in the aftermath of a brawl at a White Castle restaurant in 2006.
In all but 2 of the 26 fatal shootings of officers that were examined, the victim was holding a gun and had it “displayed” when he or she was shot, the report found. Indeed, it noted, “many of the victim officers with guns displayed reportedly failed to comply with the commands of challenging officers who ordered them to freeze or to drop their weapons.”
The report added, “This failure to comply is often simply the rapid turning of the head and body to determine the source of the verbal command.” The report referred to this reaction as “reflexive spin.”
The authors acknowledged that training for such instances was difficult because of the “rush of adrenaline” involved.
Deaths from friendly fire encounters — representing a small fraction of such confrontations — can tear at police officers and departments. In their wake, minority officers often second-guess their career choices, or are peppered with questions by relatives or friends, particularly those who have had difficult experiences with law enforcement, the study found.
A department’s recruitment efforts, in turn, can be hampered.
“Departments that had never imagined that such a tragedy would occur within their ranks find themselves unprepared to handle the inevitable emotion and trauma, sometimes leading to a loss of credibility and respect, not only with the public, but also among sworn members of their own law enforcement agencies,” the report’s executive summary said.
Yet, if patterns hold, such fatalities will afflict departments this year, next year and “so on into the future,” the summary said.