Why aren’t there a lot more police shootings in the U.S.?

The other day I was driving out to the drug testing facility to surprise myself with one of the random drug tests that are required of single-pilot charter operations (see this 2011 posting). It was about 11:00 am on a sunny day in a low-crime area. A young woman was stalled in the middle of the road in an old Volkswagen Golf. I would have stopped to help her except that I saw that a local police officer was already in the process of doing so. Then I looked a little closer and saw that he was approaching her car with one hand on his gun (presumably concerned about being one of the 30 American police officers shot and killed annually (Economist), though on average being a police officer is not very dangerous and most of the risk is from transportation accidents (BLS; TIME magazine)).

Given that not every situation is as unambiguously safe as this one (daylight, no rain or mist, no obvious reason why you’d want to stop in the middle of the road before shooting someone) and the fact that the guy was at all times just a second or two away from shooting his gun I wondered why incidents like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri aren’t more frequent. (I did a quick Google News search for “police shoot unarmed” and discovered this article about Levar Jones being shot in South Carolina on September 4 as well as a few others.)

Newspapers after Ferguson seem to be asking the question “Why are so many citizens shot by police?” Given the 780,000 police officers out there (source: BLS), if most are armed and trained like the one that I saw approaching this disabled motorist, wouldn’t a better question be “Why are there so few shootings of unarmed people by American police?”

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

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