The Washington Post's Fleeing Suspects

The <i>Washington Post</i>'s Fleeing Suspects

The paper has an interesting new project: A team of reporters is trying to tally every fatal police shooting in 2015, whether it's an officer or a suspect who is killed. They have a preliminary report with a lot of data that's worth a read.

Unsurprisingly, killings by police far outpace what we'd expect from official statistics, which are well-known to be incomplete. The demographic information isn't shocking either — in fact, it's pretty similar to what's found in the official stats. Blacks are overrepresented among those killed by police, at about 30 percent of the Post's total (they're 13 percent of the U.S. population), but this is consistent with higher rates of violent crime. Around half of murderers whose races are known are black, for example.

What I did find troubling were hints that police are killing fleeing suspects unjustifiably. Killing someone who's trying to escape is legal only when there's a threat of death or serious injury. According to the Post, "dozens" of the 385 suspects killed by police this year were fleeing, and fleeing suspects constituted 20 percent of the unarmed people police killed. Several of the paper's anecdotes seem to buttress the notion that cops are needlessly gunning down people who run and not being prosecuted for it.

After a closer look I'm not so sure. Twenty percent of the unarmed works out to just ten people or so. (Forty-nine were completely unarmed, and 13 more had weapons that turned out to be toys.) And the Post left out key details in the three cases it chose to highlight where officers killed fleeing suspects and — unlike Michael SlagerRobert Bates, and Lisa Mearkle, who are also mentioned — have not been charged.

Here's the first anecdote that caught my eye:

Nicholas T. Thomas, a 23-year-old black man, was killed in March when police in Smyrna, Ga., tried to serve him with a warrant for failing to pay $170 in felony probation fees. Thomas fled the Goodyear tire shop where he worked as a mechanic, and police shot into his car.

Missing from the report: According to the cops, Thomas was trying to run them over (and he'd done something similar in an earlier incident). Maybe what the cops say is true and maybe it's not — there's an investigation underway — but that's a key fact.

Here's the second example:

Daniel Elrod, a 39-year-old white man ... robbed a Family Dollar store. Police said he ran when officers arrived, jumping on top of a BMW in the parking lot and yelling, "Shoot me, shoot me." Elrod, who was unarmed, was shot three times as he made a "mid-air leap" to clear a barbed-wire fence, according to police records.

Three details are left out: 1) Elrod evidently also shouted that he had a gun, even though he didn't; 2) Elrod leaped in the direction of two other officers (the officer who killed Elrod claimed he feared for a fellow officer's safety); and 3) the officer lost his job, though a grand jury decided not to indict him.

With this case as well, I'm not saying the shooting was justified. To the contrary, from my understanding of the facts, I'm glad the officer resigned after an internal-affairs investigation, and maybe he should have been indicted too. A fear that a suspect will jump a barbed-wire fence, draw a gun, and harm another officer before that officer can react is not a good reason to shoot him in the back and may not legally justify it. But the situation was murkier than the Post presents it, and there were consequences for the officer.

The third anecdote I initially found horrifying:

Jimmy Ray Robinson, a.k.a. the "Honey Bun Bandit," allegedly robbed five convenience stores in Central Texas, grabbing some of the sticky pastries along the way. Robinson, a 51-year-old black man, fled when he spotted Waco police officers staking out his home.

Robinson sped off in reverse in a green Ford Explorer. It got stuck in the mud, and four Waco officers opened fire.

Missing information, from a news article that followed a grand jury's decision not to indict:

Officers opened fire after the Robinson [sic] attempted to back into a police vehicle and displayed a handgun, the Department of Public Safety said.

A gun was recovered, the DPS confirmed, but no further details were released.

The Post deserves great praise for embarking on this project. The database alone, which the paper will release at a later date, will be immensely informative. But when it comes to the use of anecdotes to illustrate how these shootings tend to go down, this first report leaves something to be desired.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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