Cincinnati police officers shot to death more suspects since 1995 than police did in seven similar-sized cities, according to a Dayton Daily News survey.
And among six cities with complete data, Cincinnati was second only to Minneapolis in the total number of suspects shot. Minneapolis police shot 29 people since 1995, killing 12. Cincinnati police shot 22 people, 13 fatally. Two others died after being sprayed with chemical irritants during struggles with Cincinnati police.
Cincinnati's most recent incident, the April 7 shooting of an unarmed black man, sparked three days of rioting.
The city's 15 deaths since 1995, all black men and three unarmed, rivals Columbus' statistics, a city twice as large as Cincinnati.
Columbus police killed 13 suspects, all of them armed, since 1995; seven were white and six were black, said Sgt. Earl Smith, police spokesman.
Police in Dayton, which is about half Cincinnati's size, shot 14 people since 1995, seven of them fatally, said Dayton police Sgt. Kenneth Lakin. Four of those killed were white and three were black. One suspect was unarmed. The others either had weapons, attempted to grab an officer's gun or used their vehicles as weapons.
"These things occur so quickly that your training and your self-defense kicks in," Lakin said. "You just shoot to try to save your life and hopefully you can shoot to stop his aggressive actions."
Cincinnati police spokesman Lt. Ray Ruberg declined to comment on the Daily News survey. Sgt. Smith in Columbus, however, said such comparisons are irrelevant.
"The only thing that is relevant in an officer-involved shooting is, Did the officer follow the law and did he act with the guidelines of the agency? " Smith said.
Nationally, police killed an average of 373 criminal suspects a year between 1976 and 1998, according to a U.S. Justice Department report on justifiable homicides by police.
Most often those killed were white males, but black males made up a disproportionate number of the deaths. But the report, released in March, also found that the rate at which blacks are killed by police is declining, with 4.8 black suspects killed per 1 million population in 1998, compared to 8 per million in 1978.
The rate for whites changed little: It was 1.2 per million in 1998 compared to 1 per million in 1978.
"The fact that African-Americans are over-represented is not surprising," said Professor David Harris of the University of Toledo College of Law. "There are more contacts between African-Americans and law enforcement on a per capita basis than there are between police and whites, when we're talking about an officer-initiated contact. That's going to translate into more potential for this kind of conflict."
Harris said without the details of each shooting, it is impossible to know why 35 percent of suspects killed by police are black, a percentage that is nearly three times higher than the rate of blacks over age 13 in the general population. But the Justice Department report also found that young black males were disproportionately represented among suspects who killed police, killing officers at a rate almost six times that of young white males between 1980 and 1998.
Statistically, blacks also are disproportionately more likely to be arrested for violent crime, according to the Justice Department. The rate of arrests for violent crime, per 100,000 people, was 213 for whites and 1,022 for blacks in 1998.
Also at work: the strong statistical relationship between poverty and violent crime, which often gets played out in minority neighborhoods, said sociology Professor Alan McEvoy of Wittenberg University.
"Even neutral behavior is seen under a cloud of suspicion in those neighborhoods," said McEvoy. "That's part of the equation that we're struggling to deal with."
The issue of race in police shootings and racial profiling has been raised across the country, most recently in Cincinnati where Timothy Thomas, 19, was killed April 7 while fleeing officers trying to arrest him on 14 minor warrants. A grand jury is to review Thomas' death, and federal investigators are reviewing police practices and the shootings in Cincinnati. Two officers have been indicted in one of the other killings in Cincinnati and an officer was reprimanded in another.
The Justice Department report only compiled homicides deemed "justifiable" after investigation showed lethal force was warranted. The statistics, voluntarily reported by police departments, do not include unjustifiable homicides by police because those numbers are included with all other murders.
Among the report's findings:
- From 1976 to 1998 police nationwide killed 8,578 suspects 56 percent white and 42 percent black.
- White police officers, who make up 87 percent of the nation's police force, committed 82 percent of justifiable homicides in 1998. Both black and white suspects are overwhelmingly more likely to be killed by a white officer than by a black officer.
- Black officers make up 11 percent of the U.S. police force and were responsible for 17 percent of the justifiable homicides in 1998.
- Overall, 1,820 law enforcement officers an average of 79 a year were killed between 1976 and 1998; on average, 86 percent were white and 13 percent were black.
- The number of officers killed each year declined from 93 in 1978 to 61 in 1998, which the report attributes to the increased use of body armor, and better training, communications and police practices.
Police trainers say the decision to use lethal force is complex because there are so many variables at work. Adrenaline is rushing, lighting may be poor and the scene chaotic, the suspect may be running or making furtive movements and officers may not know for sure if the suspect has a weapon.
"When you're under stress, decision-making is really hampered," said Sam Faulkner, training specialist for the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy.
A suspect's race doesn't matter when a gun's pointed at you, Sgt. Smith said.
"The only thing you care about is, Am I going to survive this encounter? " he said. "You shoot to stop the threat.
"People say, Why don't you shoot the gun out of their hand? I'd like to meet the guy that can do that. We're not Annie Oakley."
Police trainers officers are not taught to "shoot to kill."
Officers are trained to use their firearm to stop the aggressive action and to shoot at the torso, because it is easiest to hit and offers less chance of the bullet passing through and hitting an innocent bystander, said Tim Apolito, a criminal justice professor at the University of Dayton.
Guns that shoot rubber bullets, bean bags or even nets are less lethal, he said, but it is not always possible to have those available in the split second that officers often have to make the decision to fire a weapon.
Police are guided by the Defense of Life Standard, which grew out of a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed the shooting of fleeing felons simply because they were running away.
"Deadly force may be used only when necessary, when the officer has a reasonable belief that the subject . . . poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the officer or another person," Apolito said.
Officers may shoot an unarmed, fleeing felon if there is a reasonable belief the suspect will hurt someone else or if the officer believes the suspect is armed, Faulkner said.
"The Supreme Court understands that you're not making your decision in the calmness of the courtroom," he said. "They don't require that officers are perfect. They don't even require that they are correct. But they must require that they are reasonable."
Officers look for cues someone may make prior to firing a weapon, Faulkner said, such as reaching for a waistband or between car seats or making threatening motions.
"If I shoot and there is no weapon, I'm criticized, or certainly scrutinized," said Faulkner. "But if I shoot too late, I don't go home."
Copyright 2001 Dayton Daily News