How Propaganda Inflates Threats Against Police Officers

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In the wake of Ferguson protests, there’s been an effort from some commentators to defend increasingly militarized police tactics in response to public backlash after Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed teen Michael Brown.

One such defense was an Aug. 28 opinion piece in the Washington Post’s PostEverything blog by Joel Shults, the former police chief of a small Colorado university campus. Shults is a self-described “frequent speaker and trainer on the subjects of use of force, non-lethal assaults on law officers, and commentary on current issues in criminal justice.”

To make his case, Shults presents data in ways that alternate between deception and outright fabrication. These errors were so blatant that they required the Post to run a correction.

In the original version of Shults’ article, which can be viewed in a tweet by journalist Luke O’Neil, he argued:

No gun doesn’t mean no threat. FBI murder statistics consistently show that more people are beaten to death with hands and feet each year than are killed by assault rifles. In Missouri, nearly a third of the 386 murders that occurred in 2011 were committed without firearms. A person’s size doesn’t mean that they are aggressive, but one’s stature is clearly a factor in a fight.

Shults first substitutes “assault rifles” for guns in general; if you click through to the FBI homicide statistics, you’ll find that in the period between 2008-2012, firearms accounted for 11 times more murders than personal assaults using hands and feet (which the FBI refers to as “personal weapons” in its Uniform Crime Reports publications). FBI homicide statistics don’t specifically clarify which murders were committed using assault rifles and which were committed using standard rifles, but rifles as a whole make up only 4 percent of firearm deaths over that five-year period.

Shults resorts to citing data that, while accurate, is misleading and irrelevant. To make the second part of his argument, however, he makes up data out of thin air and then, for good measure, presents these fabricated statistics in the most misleading possible context.

If the claim that “In Missouri, nearly a third of the 386 murders that occurred in 2011 were committed without firearms” seems implausible, that’s because it is. Not just implausible, but wildly, utterly, outrageously false. If you look at Missouri Statistical Analysis Center’s website, the 2011 crime report shows that 325 firearms were used to commit murder in 2011. Of the 385 (not 386) Missouri homicides that year, that means that firearms were used in 84.4 percent of all cases. Sixty homicides (15.5 percent of all Missouri homicides) did not involve a firearm. The hands and feet Shults finds so dangerous, the only weapons Michael Brown is accused of being armed with at the moment he was fatally shot, made up only 4.7 percent of Missouri homicides that year.

To debunk the statement “Police shouldn’t shoot an unarmed teenager,” Shults argues that unarmed people can pose a threat. This is obviously true. But statistics show that for police officers, the threat is far smaller than Shults claims.

According to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund’s 2013 research bulletin, 100 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty last year (the lowest mark since 1944), with traffic-related fatalities being the leading cause. Of those 100 officers, 31 died from firearms, 13 from job-related illnesses, six from falling, two each from drowning and stabbings, and one each from electrocution, a helicopter crash, and an explosive device. Noticeably absent from this list is personal weapons. In fact, since 2004 only 19 officers have been killed by assault using personal weapons, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks line-of-duty deaths. These deaths are tragic, but their statistical incidence does not justify Shults’ paranoia, nor does it justify such an excessive police response. There have been more incidents of police officers killing unarmed black men since July 17 of this year than there have been incidents of police officers being killed by unarmed assailants in the past three years.

When contacted on Twitter, Shults declined to defend his numbers and claimed that it was a “deflection of [his] point which is that an unarmed person can pose a lethal threat.” But the fact that they can pose a threat does not means that they pose a constant threat. Fear-mongering and threat inflation breeds a mutual mistrust between a police force and a civilian population it’s sworn to serve and protect. Risk evaluation cannot be accurate or useful if it relies on statistics stripped of context or falsified.

Police homicides made up less than 1 percent of all occupational fatalities in 2012 (the most recent year for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has published occupational fatality data), and police homicides by personal weapons made up .02 percent of all occupational fatalities. 2013 saw as many dog bite-related fatalities as police officer firearm-related fatalities. The facts remain that occupational fatalities for police officers are rare, occupational fatalities due to homicide even rarer, and occupational fatalities due to homicide via personal assault so rare that no serious argument can be made that its statistical incidence requires constant vigilance.

In fact, it is unarmed black men like Michael Brown who have reason to be afraid. Data on the number of people killed by police each year is notoriously incomplete and unreliable, but studies have shown that blacks are more likely than whites to face the threat or use of force, and more likely to experience traffic or pedestrian stops, thus disproportionately placing them in situations where they may potentially face the lethal use of force by police officers. If Michael Brown was white, it would be far less likely that the pedestrian stop that led to his fatal shooting would have occurred.

Ultimately the PostEverything editors (Adam Kushner, Amanda Erickson, and Simone Sebastian) recognized that a correction was in order. Unfortunately, their correction doubled down on the dishonesty necessary to craft a ghoulish argument defending the killing of unarmed teenagers. The new paragraph reads:

No gun doesn’t mean no threat. FBI murder statistics consistently show that more people are beaten to death with hands and feet each year than are killed by assault rifles. Of the 465 weapons used to commit murder in Missouri in 2012, more than one in four were not firearms. A person’s size doesn’t mean that they are aggressive, but one’s stature is clearly a factor in a fight.

In alerting me that the piece was corrected, the editors (or whichever poor social media intern runs the blog’s Twitter account) said they “changed the murder-weapon numbers to reflect the 2012 data.” They did not change the murder weapon numbers. They inserted new murder weapon numbers. They changed the year — 2012 is the most up to date report available from the MSAC — but at no point in the original version of the article did Shults cite murder weapon numbers. He cited total murders.

A more honest and informative correction would state that only 13 percent of all Missouri homicides were committed without firearms. Switching the statistic to percentage of total weapons is an obfuscatory tactic.

However, regardless of Shults’ misuse and fabrication of statistics and the Post’s pathetic correction, the central thesis in the essay — that unarmed civilians pose a significant threat to armed police officers — is completely unsupportable. A study funded by the Center of Disease Control tracked the number of fatalities caused by cattle in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska between 2003 and 2008. There were 21 such fatalities. That means that there were two more fatalities caused by cattle in just four states over a six year period than there were law enforcement officer deaths caused by homicide using personal weapons over an 11 year period nationwide.

Joel Shults, no longer the Chief of Police for Adams State University, is now running seminars in Missouri instructing officers on the use of force, increasing successful prosecutions for resisting arrest and assaulting officers, and reducing police department liability and officer injury and disability. If his seminars are consistent with the ideology expressed in this article, he is training a new generation of law enforcement to inflate threats as he does, mislead the public as he does, and respond to unarmed teenagers with a disproportionate reliance on force.

As more and more officers nationwide are trained with this mindset, we will see more Michael Browns, more Ezell Fords, more Oscar Grants, and Sean Bells, and Amadou Diallos.

Aidan Daly is a freelance writer living in Boston. He graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a degree in political science.

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