Intro. [Recording date: June 23rd, 2020.]
Russ Roberts: Today is June 23rd, 2020. And, my guest is Franklin Zimring, the William G. Simon Professor of Law and the Faculty Director of Criminal Justice Studies at the law school at the University of California, Berkeley. He's the author of numerous books, including When Police Kill, which is the subject of today's conversation. Frank, welcome to EconTalk.
Franklin Zimring: Well, thank you for having me.
Russ Roberts: If all goes well, there should be a video of this conversation via YouTube. I encourage you to go to YouTube and search for EconTalk and subscribe.
Russ Roberts: Frank, your book was published in 2017. A lot has happened since then, much of it tragic. But, I want to start with where your book starts, which is, you talk about the fact that there are two ways that the state takes the lives of the people here. One is through capital punishment, the execution of criminals who have been convicted of crimes. The other is through the actions of police officers. And, until 2014, there was an enormous amount of attention focused on the death penalty and very little on the deaths from police action. Why was that the case before 2014?
Franklin Zimring: Well, it's a very simple political fact that what happens with executions and execution policy state by state is that we aggregate it. But, the fact that we have 18,000 different police departments and that the police department is the operational unit to focus on meant that each police killing happened as a separate news event. And, we never added them up. So, what happens is that you have 20 to 40 executions in the United States--
Russ Roberts: Per year--
Franklin Zimring: Yes; but that seems like an enormity. Whereas if you keep the 1000-1100 police killings a year that happen, each as a separate event and treat it as unique, you never add it up and you don't realize that we have a steady and collective and extremely large governmental use of lethal force which doesn't get aggregated.
Russ Roberts: And, there were attempts to aggregate that; there still are attempts to aggregate it. The first part of your book describes the different choices that people have made in attempting to summarize this data.
And, of course, the official numbers actually appear to be too low by about half. Two newspapers, The Washington Post and the British paper, The Guardian, get a number closer to the 1000 or 1100 that you talk about.
Russ Roberts: Of course those deaths, those 1100, a thousand or so, or 1100 include any case where a person died at the hands of police. It includes self-defense; it includes shooting somebody in the back; and it tragically, of course, as well includes cases like George Floyd, where a gun was not used, but a person dies as a result of a police action. So, there's a huge variety of ways that people die at the hands of police, correct?
Franklin Zimring: There's a very large variety, but there are also clusters and concentrations, which are extremely important. There are about 1,120 deaths in police custody or police interaction each year, but almost exactly 1000 of those are fatal shootings. And, so, that cluster is 90% of the events. And, it's that 90% where the fatal force used by police, the exercise of control, is an intention to wound with a lethal instrument.
So, it's probably best to keep that 90% as a singular and aggregate phenomenon.
And, then the question is: How many of those are--well, justified is one way to divide them, and then non-justified. But that requires a particular kind of fact finding.
The best way to divide that thousand shooting deaths is into the necessary--and then define what I mean by necessary--and the unnecessary. And, that division is almost 50/50.
There is only one kind of weapon assault which creates a large risk of life to police officers. And, the overwhelming majority of all of the events that provoke shootings are assaults against police officers. In 57% of those cases--and, this is again using that Washington Post and Guardian aggregation--in 57% of those cases, the police say a gun was present. In very few of those cases is a gun fired at a police officer. But, there's supposed to be a gun there in 57% of the cases, somewhere, and therefore some kind of a firearms threat.
Now, the reason to separately analyze those cases is very simple. 97.5% of all fatalities of police from assault in the six years that we aggregate them using FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] statistics are with guns.
So, that the only significant and recurrent threat to an officer's life is with the firearm.
Now, that's important because police officers have a wide variety of other kinds of force that they can exercise. They can call for more help. They can use a variety of weapons that are usually non-lethal--tasers, mechanisms to magnify the effectiveness of hand-to-hand combat.
So, killing force is only necessary when police lives are at meaningful risk.
Now, that means that more than 400 of the events that police say is a justification for the shooting death involve weapons that don't put police at significant death risk.
They are, 'He had a blade and was showing it.' They are non-injury events. They are what are called personal force.
But, that, in a country of 300 million people with 650,000 police is talking about a very, very tiny death risk in any attack or cumulatively over the year. It's much more dangerous to drive around the city. It's much more dangerous. That 96[?]%--
Russ Roberts: As you point out, that the good news is that the risk of death in the line of duty for a police officer has fallen dramatically over the last few decades for a lot of reasons, but mainly because of Kevlar--body armor and body protection. A knife is not nearly as dangerous as it was before Kevlar. A bullet isn't either.
Franklin Zimring: No, it was never dangerous for police. It was never life-endangering for police. There are--the infrequency of fatal knife assaults antedates the Kevlar circumstances, very substantially.
Russ Roberts: Well, I don't mean to-- I take the point. I'm in agreement that there appears to be hundreds of deaths that are avoidable, that don't require fatal action on the part of the police.
However, it's also the case that perhaps one of the reasons that knives never lead to the deaths of the police is because they shoot the people who have them. So that--it depends what the distance is.
Franklin Zimring: Well, except for the fact that it's almost--
Russ Roberts: It depends what the distance is.
Franklin Zimring: Yeah. It also is--No, it's more than a hundred-fold difference. The--remember, it isn't a knife attack that we're talking about.
Russ Roberts: Correct, yeah.
Franklin Zimring: It is, 'He had,' or, 'I thought he had a bladed weapon.' And, so, it is a display, not an assault. And, the fatality risk was never significant.
There are several things. It's illegal, obviously, to brandish a blade at a police officer. It's illegal to run away from a police officer. It's illegal to try and bolt away from an arrest. So that there are many situations which justify force. They just don't justify killing.
Russ Roberts: Right.
Russ Roberts: So, as you point out, one of the things I learned from your book, which I learned a great deal, one of the things I learned is that in 1985, the Supreme Court ruled that you can't use deadly force against someone fleeing from the scene. Which had a big effect. But, not big enough in that it still is the case that a thousand people die a year at the hands of police.
Before we get into the possibilities for reducing that number, I was surprised at how many times deaths occur in response to a call related to domestic violence. Is that an accurate summary of one of the findings of the book?
Franklin Zimring: Absolutely.
Russ Roberts: A non-trivial number of people are shot by police who are responding to a call of domestic violence. And, I assume that could be from the spouse, or it could be from neighbors hearing screaming or something. We don't know the circumstances.
Franklin Zimring: That's right. But, the ways in which--and, I think the police do an accurate job here--the way in which the category is described is not as Domestic Assaults, although families and intimates are involved. But, the notion is: the entire of personal conflicts where an individual has a weapon and uses that weapon in a manner that is regarded by the people that call the police as either threatening others or threatening themselves.
Russ Roberts: Sure.
Franklin Zimring: The dispute category is, by itself, a quarter of all situations that provoke killings by police.
And, that's nothing new. That is the chronic condition. And, one of the reasons for that is that most police calls are concentrated in non-offending behavior. Police are the first line of intervention whenever there is something problematic and potentially threatening that citizens want to respond. If you don't call the cops, who do you call?
Russ Roberts: So, one of the challenges I think in today's discussion or conversation in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd is the question of: Are police being asked to do things they're not very good at, and that often lead to violence, death? And, of course, just as a footnote, we're not only interested in death. We are interested in death. But, harassment, fear on the streets in certain communities is also part of the concerns that are being voiced right now.
Russ Roberts: So, a lot of people have suggested, 'You know, police don't make very good social workers.' Showing up at a marital argument that's escalating into violence at 2:00 in the morning is not their strong suit. Do you think that's an important part of where police actions go wrong?
Franklin Zimring: Well, I think that the answer to that is yes and no, because let's back up. There are lots of things in domestic conflict resolution that police may not be wonderful at.
But, police bring a capacity to use force, and to respond, that is very important when the weaker of two people in a conflict--we can take the domestic assault as the typical one--wants to call for help. If you call a social worker, it had better be a pretty strong social worker.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, no, that's one of the challenges as we try to think of how to remake either police, or their actions, or the scope of their activities, is that usually most of us call the police--I've done it a handful of times in my life, a small handful, thank God. But, most of us call the police when we're afraid for our lives, or our property in some way, or someone else's property or lives.
So, it is a inherently often dangerous situation.
And, as you point out, the United States has a much higher rate of police killing than in other countries. And, part of it is the inevitable result of 60 million handguns in the hands of American citizens, American people.
Franklin Zimring: Yeah. I mean, the central finding in the book, which is--what is it that threatens police lives?--is the classic good news, bad news joke. The good news is that only firearms are real risks to police officer lives. The bad news is there are a lot of firearms in the United States. And, it is particularly the concealed ones, the ones that police can't see which are specific and unique threats.
So that, the best that we can do, if we can really reduce the number of killings by police to the numbers which are realistically necessary to protect police lives, we can cut the number of dead citizens in half, and maybe by 75%.
That's the good news. The bad news is that still leaves civilian deaths in the hundreds where there is a realistic threat of guns being used. Guns are the only problem, but they're a major problem.
Russ Roberts: How many police die a year, roughly, in the United States in the line of duty?
Russ Roberts: Fifty. So, I think it's just important to get that out there.
I think one of the things we've heard in the aftermath of George Lloyd's death is that only a handful of people are killed who are unarmed as if that is the right measure of police killing. It's not. Obviously there are plenty of people who are either armed with a knife, as you say, but don't have a chance to kill anybody, who gets killed.
Franklin Zimring: Or baseball bat, or a blunt object. None of which kill police officers.
Russ Roberts: Presumably some of them have guns, but don't brandish them and just get killed anyway out of fear or whatever.
Franklin Zimring: Or don't have guns, but look like they have guns.
Russ Roberts: Right. Right. Which is--
Franklin Zimring: And sometimes they're radios. Sometimes--you see, the more aggressive you are at the early indications, the more false positives.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. For sure.
Franklin Zimring: Have we ever done a carefully detailed analysis of each and every one of those shooting episodes? Some police departments have and some cities. But, again, you've got 18,000 different police departments. We have no idea what the range is. And that's why it has been very important to start with what newspapers and media have recounted.
Because, as I said to you at the beginning, each shooting by a police department is a single event. It's never aggregated in a policy, scientific way.
And, that's our first big mistake. Somebody should be counting the aggregates, figuring out what the determinants are and drawing the lines between necessary and unnecessary use of force that frequently kills.
Russ Roberts: Of course, reasonable people could disagree about what necessary or unnecessary is. You might imagine the police officers feel differently from non-police officers.
But, I think what's powerful about the book is that it's clear there are cases--and it's not three, unfortunately--where deadly force is used. It might be five police officers killing somebody who is 20 feet away. So, shooting and discharging their weapons to some poor soul who is 20 feet away. So--
Franklin Zimring: And, with a blade.
Russ Roberts: Right. I just want listeners who are wondering about this is that, if you read the book, and there's quite a bit of careful empirical work in the book, and my listeners know that I'm skeptical about a lot of statistical analysis. I hope it doesn't insult you, Frank. But, there's not a lot of statistical analysis in the modern econometric sense. There are a lot of facts.
Now, of course facts are tricky, and a lot of your book is trying to make it clear that just counting, which would be the most basic kind of number we have, how many?
Answering that question, it turns out it's not so straightforward. Once you've got that answer, which you make the case, I think quite plausibly, that the number of people killed by police in America each year is something close to a thousand. Once you have that, then the question is, well, how many of that thousand are avoidable--and, without putting police at risk?
Which is, you very clearly state: Your goal is not to put police at risk.
And, you suggest that it is hundreds of people whose lives could have been saved, whose deaths could have been avoided had a different strategy been used by the officers. And, those of us who've watched the horrible videos over the last six years that have increasingly been available because people have cell phones; and, a thoughtful person then has to wonder how many events happened we didn't have access to visually before the advent of common cell phone use of recording. The average person has to wonder: This could be avoided, and why isn't it? Why isn't it the case that somebody, the tragic death of Eric Garner, George Floyd who were clearly at the time not at risk of harming the police officers involved--their deaths could have been avoided. The puzzle for many of us is, well, why aren't they punished for what seems to be the overuse of lethal force?
Somebody who's shot fleeing, somebody who's shot at a distance by more than one officer, somebody who is shot 15 times by often an officer who--an officer who has got other issues in their record?
Why did these people not get punished?
And, so, the standard, I think, way that many economists, certainly, and casual economists and the public would respond is: Well, obviously there's very little consequence to the misuse of force by police. We need to fix that. If you had to describe the barriers to fixing that, where would you start?
First of all, is it true that officers frequently escape any sanctions or censure for the use of deadly force when it perhaps is not necessary?
Franklin Zimring: Oh, absolutely.
Russ Roberts: And, secondly, why hasn't it changed?
Franklin Zimring: Very simple, in two dimensions.
In the first instance, very few of these killings are situations in which all of the fault is on the individual officer. And, that becomes absolutely important, because if you're talking about the criminal responsibility of the individual officer, it was all his fault. That is a small minority of all the cases and a small minority of the unnecessary killings.
Russ Roberts: Why is that?
Franklin Zimring: That is because the standards that justify the use of deadly force that departments utilize in making evaluations are ambiguous and cover an awful lot of settings where police lives aren't at risk. There are knives. There are baseball bats. There are intensely felt personal force assaults that don't kill police officers, but that do create justification.
So, what that means that if you really want to prevent the 400, at least, killings a year that are unnecessary, you're going to have to find a way to sanction and prevent the killings which are the joint responsibility of systems of police--the police chief, the administrative rules, and police officers.
And, the way you can do that is with big money damages.
If it is the system and the officer who are jointly at fault, they should be jointly sanctioned. You can't put a police department in jail. But, what you can do, is you can create a money-damage incentive that will then produce the miraculous cure for hundreds of unnecessary deaths, which are very simple rules that police departments announce and administer. 'Don't shoot,' rules. 'If the weapon doesn't kill police officers, don't shoot.' 'When that is the weapon that you see, use other kinds of force. Get more help. Or don't make an arrest. But don't kill.' Those are the don't-shoot rules.
The other kind of very simple rules are: Stop shooting rules.
When police officers go through weapons training, they're told, and by God, if you're going to use lethal force, make sure--now, if your life was at consistent risk in all these settings, that might be something that would be discussable. But, when you have an awful lot, probably half or more of these killing situations, where the police officer's life isn't at risk, then the need to quote "make sure and to keep shooting," which dramatically elevates the death rate--one wound inflicted from a police gun, 20.8% death rate. Three wounds, four wounds, five wounds, 15 shots--and all of a sudden death occurs in the majority of cases.
So, Question One is: Was any gun fired necessary?
Question Two is: What are the situations where it is clear that whatever danger to life there was is now over? Is he on the ground? Is he running away? [heh-heh-heh ?] Is he already wounded and unlikely to shoot?
So, you have: Don't shoot rules, and stop shooting rules.
Now, how do you enforce them? The more those rules are clear, the greater the number of unjustified shootings where it will look like the clear fault of the individual officer or group of officers.
Then the system isn't adding to the blame and sharing the blame.
So, the clearer the rules, the easier it will be to assess individual responsibility when the officers shoot and the rules don't allow it.
But the other thing which is clear is that police officers care about promotion. They care about their salaries. They care about their ratings. So, that, once there is an administrative priority to make sense and to save civilian lives, the numbers can go down. There are some police departments that do pretty well these days.
In New York City in the 1970s, citizen deaths from police guns were 70 a year. It's closer to seven or eight now in the most populous city in the United States. Those are not simply rules, but those are the police knowing the priorities.
Russ Roberts: And, as you point out, which I thought was an important insight is that police are protected by the same justice system that protects all of us in the United States. They can use lethal force with more impunity than the average person, but when accused of using lethal force inappropriately, they are subject to the same justice system that we are; which is: we are given a lot of opportunity to prove our innocence, which is a good thing and most of us treasure about the U.S system when at least works in our favor. Here it offends a lot of people when it protects an officer from punishment.
Franklin Zimring: As an individual.
Russ Roberts: Correct.
Franklin Zimring: But, if you have a set of sanctions that can blame the system as well, and that's what financial sanctions can do--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, they care about that--
Franklin Zimring: then you can spread the blame.
Russ Roberts: So, what role do you think unions play? Which is another--you didn't mention it in your book as far as I remember, but unions play a role in protecting officers, obviously, from inappropriate sanctions. But some would suggest they protect officers from appropriate sanctions. And, I think, a lot of the idea of "defunding the police," which can mean a variety of things. But, certainly if we're talking about reforming the police, the unions appear to be something of a barrier to that reform. Do you think that's a fair assessment?
Franklin Zimring: I think that the answer is yes. But, again, the way in which you focus your control mechanism can make a difference there. The closer you are to generating systemic pressure--going after the chief, too--the less important will be the opposition of the police union. There is no Police Chiefs' Union. Well, there is an Association; but, that takes some of the important pressure off. It is still the case that there is an unwillingness by police unions to focus disciplinary attention of any kind to use-of-force policies.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; let's forget killings for the moment. An officer who is--generate a set of complaints for over-zealousness, cruelty, being the equivalent of a rogue officer, but doesn't kill anybody, but gets a series of complaints--that person should be sanctioned by the chief. But, is that possible in the union setting in most American cities right now?
Franklin Zimring: It's difficult but possible. And, again, it's probably easier to create financial and promotional sanctions and to withhold particular benefits than it is to use what are essentially quasi-criminal disciplinary tactics exclusively.
So, the broader the controls and the more administrative it looks, the easier it will be to justify without what is essentially a criminal conviction or a 100%-fault standard, which puts all the fault on the officer and none on the system.
Russ Roberts: In your book, you talk about Philadelphia. And your book was published in 2017, and the last two years you had data for--in Philadelphia, as you point out and an underlying theme of this conversation is that we don't have reliable data across the country--but we do have some reliable data in various cities at various times.
So, Philadelphia had a dramatic drop over the two years before your book came out, or at least in the data that was available when your book came out. Two questions: Did that drop continue to stay low? Did the level, at least, continue to stay low in Philadelphia?
Franklin Zimring: I think so.
Russ Roberts: And, do we know why Philadelphia was able to cut the rate of death in police actions so dramatically?
Franklin Zimring: Well--what we don't have is a set of discreet and highly visible administrative events to focus on and say, 'Yes, on July 15th, here's what the chief said.' But, the message gets around.
The real question there is that when you look at these big drops and you ask, 'Well, have police been markedly less safe under those circumstances?' Evidently not.
Russ Roberts: Because the death rate of police in the line of duty has fallen and stayed low.
Franklin Zimring: Yes. The big fall has been over a long period of time. But the big stay-low has been sustained. And, when departments--let's go back to New York, which has over 40 years of an enormous drop--did that make policing more life-threatening in the city? And, the answer is: Apparently not. So, we do, yeah--
Russ Roberts: So, your claim is--just to make it clear, your claim is that--let me try to restate it. Your claim is that over the last decade or two, maybe a little bit longer, it has become increasingly safe to be a police officer on the job. It has not become increasingly safe to be a potential victim of police action. Whether that's--you have to be careful here. Police don't generally, in America, go out and kill people for fun. There are--we're still talking about criminals, but we're trying to talk about the unnecessary use of lethal force, that that has not--
Franklin Zimring: And, we're not necessarily, by the way, talking about criminals--
Russ Roberts: But, some of them are, for sure--
Franklin Zimring: Remember, if it's a dispute--
Russ Roberts: Yeah; fair enough--
Franklin Zimring: that it's 25%--
Russ Roberts: Fair enough.
Russ Roberts: Okay. So, there's--
Franklin Zimring: I would make one amendment to the way in which you described my argument.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, go ahead.
Franklin Zimring: The big drop in the risk of death to police goes back from the mid-1970s to probably the late 1990s or the turn of the new century. What we have done since the dramatic lowering of police risks is maintain them at that low level.
Now, 50 police deaths a year is still, if you want to compare it to France or Germany, many more. And, the reason is, again, all of those guns.
Russ Roberts: Yep.
Franklin Zimring: But, it is a substantial and very consistent increase in police safety from life-threatening assaults, which does not appear to be at significant risk. I don't think that there's anything about police shooting less that will lead to a substantial increase from 50 a year. I wish I could say that we could also anticipate substantial drops from 50 police officers a year--
Russ Roberts: Possible--
Franklin Zimring: But for that, I'm afraid we'd need a different country.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, fair enough. But, I think there's another issue that we haven't talked about. I don't think it's in the book either. So, let me restate--I'm going to try again to summarize your argument. I'll try to be a little bit more succinct. It's gotten safer to be a police officer, and yet police still kill a lot of people in the line of duty that probably could be avoided: where their lives are not at stake and civilians are dying. Now--
Franklin Zimring: That's a completely fair--
Russ Roberts: So, here's the question. If we reduced the use of lethal force by police officers, is it possible that other people would be endangered other than the police? In particular, what role does the potential use of lethal force have in reducing crime? And, let me make it clear here: I'm not suggesting this is about justice or a good thing. But there might be an unintended consequence if we put in the types of 'Don't shoot, no shoot' rules that you're talking about.
So, for example, somebody fleeing from the scene of a crime. You can chase 'em down. If you're not going to shoot him--and you can't--you're either going to have to get some help from other people, or tackle them, or do something else if they're really eager to escape, which they--
Franklin Zimring: Or arrest them later.
Russ Roberts: If you could find them. If you can find them.
Franklin Zimring: No, if you've got--if you've got probable cause, the question is not if you can find them, but when.
No. I think that there is absolutely no clear indication of any significant or measurable crime prevention. And, it would be so unlikely because of the almost complete lack of overlap.
Remember, you've got more dispute settlements--Uncle Floyd is up there with a gun and very unhappy--than you have any kind of cops and robbers situation, too. So that what you would--
Russ Roberts: Yeah: A better way to say it--what you're saying is that most of the deaths that occur in the line of officers discharging their duty is that it's not like they come upon a bank robbery or a mugging. It's simply a dangerous person who is a little bit unpredictable. And, if that person has a gun, we're not surprised that sometimes bad things happen if they brandish the gun. If they don't brandish the gun and they don't have a gun visible, it's sometimes--you're suggesting a lot of those deaths could be avoided at no higher risk to the police.
Franklin Zimring: Oh, yes. Yes. And, those are the situations. And, under those circumstances, to even then peak [peek ?] at general crime rates and suggest that there might be some significant relationship is pretty far-fetched.
Russ Roberts: Well, I'm bringing it up for a couple reasons. One, I know there's some research on it right now, which I'm not on top of, but maybe we'll come back to it here at EconTalk. But, I'm thinking about a city that's gotten a lot of press in the last week or so--the last couple of weeks in the aftermath of George Floyd's death--which is Camden, New Jersey.
So, there were a couple articles, at least--probably more than two, I saw two--extolling Camden for re-imagining its police department, making it more community-based, gentler, nicer. And, they cut the number of deaths that were caused by police dramatically.
So, that's the first two thirds of the article, and it makes you feel great and it gives you hope. And it's--at a time when we're really, a horrible time right now in America over this issue and a horrible time for people who are at risk of being shot by the police--the idea that there's an alternative that's imaginable is very encouraging.
However, as you read your way further down the article, it says, after it's talked about how great the reduction has been in the number of shootings by the police, it says, 'But, of course there are the other numbers.' And, I'm thinking, 'What are the numbers they're talking about?' And, those are: crime.
And, in the city of Camden, at least based on the way I understood the article, other crimes increased. Crimes increased, period.
Now, that might be a trade-off worth making for a thousand reasons, but it's not a free lunch. A gentler police force--obviously there are many ways to interpret that phrase and I understand what you're talking about. You're trying to be unambiguous. It's not necessarily easy to be unambiguous: 'Don't shoot unless, stop shooting when.'
Those are--we could have rules that are somewhat unambiguous, at least on paper. In real life, they are inevitably going to be complicated by adrenaline, fear, circumstance, uncertainty, passion, etc. But--
Franklin Zimring: Well, yeah, I, I'm going to have to step in and make two points--
Russ Roberts: Go for it--
Franklin Zimring: in opposition to any evidence of a clear causal relationship between increased shooting by police and decreases in general crime rates. In the first instance, there has been no persuasive indication or statistical study that decreasing shootings by police increases the number of attacks against police. Now, that's--
Russ Roberts: But, I'm not talking about that, Frank.
Franklin Zimring: Yeah, I know. But, that's exactly where you'd have to look. Because that is at least a situation where there is a clear link between the particular risk and the particular counter-risk.
Russ Roberts: No, I don't think so.
Franklin Zimring: That's what it's supposed to be about.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, let me disagree with you and then you can push back. But, it seems to me, the following: Right now we're at a time where the prestige of the police is not very high. We had a situation of--
Franklin Zimring: Oh, I think that varies from city to city.
Russ Roberts: Fair enough.
But, in the last couple of weeks, there's been an allegation that police stood by as looting occurred. That they--there's some adversarial aspects of policing that I think need desperately to be repaired if we can figure this out. I don't know if we can. And it will be city by city. There are some national things we can do. You talk about some in the book, such as data gathering, which are extremely important. There's some justice department, Department of Justice issues.
But, my point is the following:
One way to reduce police shootings is to reduce the level of policing. And, that's a challenge. Now, I'm trying to make a contrast. Maybe it's not a fair one. I'm trying to make a contrast between the police being less vigilant, which I can understand a lot of people, both being in favor of that, that they're too vigilant right now, they're too active.
So, what we need to do is the police need to pull back. When you do that, you're going to get less killings by the police. But you might get more crime. I assume you probably would. So, that's what I think is the issue.
Franklin Zimring: Okay. I have to throw some books at you here.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, go ahead.
Franklin Zimring: And, of course they're books I wrote. In 2012, I wrote a book called The City That Became Safe. And, it's about New York policing and its effects. And, remember that New York used to shoot 70 people a year, but by the turn of the century it was only shooting seven or eight or nine.
Russ Roberts: That's a big improvement.
Franklin Zimring: But, it was doing an awful lot of policing.
And, it turns out that intensity of policing is a completely different phenomenon. And, it was one that was very effective in New York.
The point I was making is that if you thought there was a real causal impact, plus or minus, on specific risk of shootings by police, you would look for it in the circumstances which the police would usually use for the justification.
Those are in a tiny minority of fatalities. Either crime in process or make an arrest. They are overwhelmingly assaults against police.
That makes sense.
But, then it suggests that what you want to see if there's any real preventive effect of police shootings is on the primary purpose of police shooting. And, there, I have not seen any decent statistical evidence.
Now I've got to go further than that.
Russ Roberts: That's an excellent point. You're saying that if police kill to defend themselves, then reducing how much they kill should make them less dangerous--excuse me--should put them in more danger. The fact that it doesn't suggests that we could reduce the civilian deaths without endangering the police.
I guess the question is whether there's some other spillover effects and how that is administered.
Franklin Zimring: Yeah, but that would be almost impossible to measure.
And, here I've got to throw--the oldest book I'll throw at you, at. It's called Deterrence: Legal Threat in Crime Control. And, I don't think you were out of short pants when it was published.
Russ Roberts: When was that? What year was that?
Russ Roberts: Well, I appreciate the compliment. I was 18, but go ahead. I was out of short pants, but occasionally wore them in the summer.
Franklin Zimring: Okay.
No, but look, that's--there are all kinds of--you know, you paid me the compliment of saying that the book that we're discussing, When Police Kill, is full of facts, but not regression equations.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, which I like.
Franklin Zimring: There's a reason for that. And, that is, that the assumptions of causality that have to be embedded in those kinds of statistical attempts to tease out prevention are pretty tricky.
Russ Roberts: And, as you point out, we don't have much data on the things we might want to have data on.
You also point out, by the way, you use a--what use what used to be cutting edge but now it might be called primitive--you use what's called 'cross tabulation' or 'cross tabs' to show that there's variation that makes sense, that we could learn something from.
And, one of the things we haven't talked about is that crime in the United States has fallen partly simply because the population has gotten older. Young people are more prone to commit crime than older people.
And, so, there are changes that aren't due to changes in police strategy, aren't due to changes of deterrence, aren't due to changes in policy, but are just demographic in nature.
One thing we didn't get to talk about--we're almost out of time--2014 was a, when you wrote your book--was a watershed.
2014 was--Michael Brown died in Ferguson. Eric Garner died in Staten Island. Eric Garner was--died of a variety of things, but he was not shot.
Franklin Zimring: No, it was almost the fraternal twin of the Minneapolis situation--
Russ Roberts: Of George Floyd, yeah. Correct.
And, we have Freddie Gray dying in police custody in April, 2015.
We have Colin Kaepernick in 2016 calling attention to these issues as a football player and kneeling during the National Anthem.
And yet despite all--so that obviously changed--that sequence and the fact that these were, most of them were able to be seen visually, outraged--and there were more--but, they outraged a lot of people. And we understand that's part of the reason why things changed and whether people cared about this.
What fascinates me is that the death of George Floyd seems to be a different watershed, obviously in the response. It isn't just, 'Oh, here's another one. Here's an officer--'. Part of it's the length, the tragic length of time that this person, poor person, was under the knee of the officer. The fact that it was visual, again, obviously it had a huge impact.
But, everything seems up for grabs now in a way that it wasn't, despite the outrage after Ferguson, after Eric Garner.
And, I'm curious: What are your thoughts about where we're headed? Because your book, written in the calm of 2017, is a, pardon the term, a wonky book. It's full of policy suggestions about how we gather data and what the Federal Government might do, and monitoring police departments, and so on.
Now we're in a world where people are saying we should get rid of the police in certain settings, or change their role, or cut their funding in half.
As a libertarian classical liberal, my general thought is that I want the police doing less of the things that--I'd wished they weren't fighting the drug war. I think that's a huge part of the corruption of the police. I don't like the idea of certain levels of immunity. I don't like the union power to protect certain officers.
But, we're at a point now where those are considered, like--again, I used to be somewhat radical, but now I'm not radical at all. I'm a little conservative. Where do you think we're going?
Franklin Zimring: Well, I think that there are two enormously important questions to consider that are very different questions.
One of them is the nature, intensity, and budgeting of municipal policing in the United States. That's an important question.
Russ Roberts: Their budgets are quite large.
Franklin Zimring: I know.
And, it looks like there are a mass of these pretty fundamental aspects of the current governance of policing that are at risk.
And, then there's the question of police use of lethal force.
Now, I'm going to tell you my prejudice. I don't think that the very important but very specific and very soluble problem of police use of lethal force is a good, general organizing principle to take on these other much more pervasive kinds of policing changes, so that--
Russ Roberts: The harassing of young black men, all kinds of issues that are troubling--
Franklin Zimring: There are all kinds of issues of excessive force. There are all kinds of issues, also, of the assumptions that are made about how to use police power.
And, those are very important conversations to have. But those are conversations that we can have after we've solved the very specific and very soluble problem.
Look: Nobody is in love with the New York police force. I'm not. But, a New York police force that kills eight or nine people instead of 70 is a much better urban police force in a way which can [can't ?] be separated from these larger and profoundly important but very difficult questions of organizational change and focus.
Russ Roberts: And, as you point out, and I think it seems to be forgotten in this particular historical moment: For the same reason, we don't have a national database, a reliable national database of people killed by the police. And, that's because--for one reason: One of the reasons that is, this is a necessary reason, not sufficient. We could overcome this. But: Police is a local function. The buck should stop somewhere. I would have it stop at the police chief's desk and then the mayor's desk.
And, then for some reason in this current moment, it's stopping at the country's desk, which I don't think is productive, personally. But, it has advantages. We do need to think--I think it has forced all of us to think a lot more carefully about race, and I hope productively about race in general.
But, your point is that in terms of governance about police killing, which would be a huge improvement, that's got to be done one police department at a time. Certainly there is hope that that could happen now. It's too late for lots of people, but better late than never.
Franklin Zimring: It is also something that there is national policy--sophisticated policy--that can provoke.
Qualified immunity rules have to change. States as well as the Federal Government have to create private damage actions and have to create really effective measures of monetary damage. And have to make sure that police departments can't simply make that a small-line item on the budget. If unjustified killings are an administrative wound to police in the United States, they're going to fix the problem.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. The flip side of that is civil asset forfeiture, which is a way police can make money. And, I think your point--it's not very glamorous, Frank, so I don't see it carrying the day right this minute, but it might carry the day down the road--is that if you hit them in the wallet, it will get their attention.
That is a way to induce a little bit more, perhaps, governance and accountability, which is really a lot of what we're talking about today.
My guest today has been Frank Zimring. His book is When Police Kill. Frank, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Franklin Zimring: Well, thank you for having me.