The risks unarmed people pose to police

Article reprinted from Force Science News #377

When police shoot an “unarmed” individual, the implication or outright accusation by media and activists is commonly that the lethal pressure was unjustified as a result of the topic, and not using a weapon, was “defenseless” and thus couldn’t have posed a menace.

Now a newly printed research by two prison justice researchers paints a far completely different image. Their findings ought to be shared with PIOs and different LEOs answerable for speaking actuality to the civilian world.

When police shoot an “unarmed” individual, the implication or outright accusation by media and activists is often that the deadly force was unjustified because the subject, without a weapon, was “defenseless” and thus could not have posed a threat. (Photo/Thomanication via Flickr)
When police shoot an “unarmed” particular person, the implication or outright accusation by media and activists is commonly that the lethal pressure was unjustified as a result of the topic, and not using a weapon, was “defenseless” and thus couldn’t have posed a menace. (Picture/Thomanication by way of Flickr)

After reviewing all reported circumstances throughout a two-year interval, the pair discovered that:

  • “When law enforcement officials used lethal pressure throughout an encounter with an unarmed citizen, they have been, in reality, going through an imminent menace of demise or critical bodily harm to themselves or a 3rd particular person” in almost 90 % of the conditions.
  • The remainder concerned “unintentional shootings or unintentional discharges” slightly than deliberate focusing on.
  • Unarmed topics shot by intent included those that have been trying to disarm an officer, drown an officer, throw an officer from a bridge or rooftop, strangle an officer, gesturing as if armed with an actual weapon, maintaining palms hid regardless of instructions and charging towards an officer with obvious intent to assault.

“Being unarmed,” the research concludes, “doesn’t imply ‘not harmful.’”

The analysis was performed by Pressure Science Information subscriber Dr. Jon Shane, a former captain with the Newark (New Jersey) Police Division and now an affiliate professor at John Jay Faculty of Felony Justice, and Zoe Swenson, a particular investigator of corruption issues with the New York Metropolis Division of Investigation.

Their findings are printed in a small however dear guide titled Unarmed and Dangerous: Patterns of Threats by Citizens During Deadly Force Encounters with Police, out there in hardcover and (cheaper) Kindle codecs at


Shane and Swenson have been spurred into the first-of-its-kind undertaking by a irritating realization: Whereas the capturing of unarmed people is a very delicate flashpoint within the present contentious debate over police practices, the general public reporting of those occasions “typically lacks contextual particulars essential to make a reasoned judgment” about whether or not a given capturing is justified.

Within the absence of an intensive description of the circumstances, the researchers write, “what dominates the media headlines [and drives protester outrage] is a modern-day story of David and Goliath; an underdog (unarmed citizen) set upon by an institution villain (armed police officer) in a mismatched contest on an uneven taking part in area.”

With “unarmed” connoting “not harmful or threatening,” the offender is “typically lauded as a martyr within the encounter,” as if he have been “somebody strolling down the road minding their very own enterprise” when “summarily executed” by an “unreasonable, biased” cop. “Sadly,” the researchers observe, “most onlookers imagine that if a police officer shouldn’t be punished for utilizing pressure in opposition to an unarmed particular person, then they don’t seem to be held accountable.”

Hoping to supplant emotional mythology with info, Shane and Swenson got down to fill the “vacuum of contextual particulars” about unarmed shootings.


There isn’t a official, complete, dependable database on legislation enforcement use of pressure within the US. So the analysis staff turned to an unofficial compilation as their principal useful resource – the much-publicized however restricted Fatal Force database maintained by the Washington Put up. This consists of publicly out there experiences of on-duty, police-related firearms deaths, collected from information experiences, legislation enforcement web sites, social media, and different spotty sources.

Checking circumstances the Put up listed as “unarmed,” the researchers discovered that a few of these people, in reality, have been armed, simply not with standard weapons. These included offenders who confronted officers with a metal-tipped broomstick, tree branches, bear spray, a knife, rocks, and automobiles.

Some 20 circumstances from the database needed to be put aside as a result of they lacked “sufficient data to find out whether or not the officer or the general public was going through an imminent menace” when the capturing occurred.

Ultimately, Shane and Swenson have been capable of isolate and analyze 112 cases wherein officers had shot and killed a topic who was not armed with an actual or improvised weapon. This group represents about 6 % of all deadly shootings by LEOs in the course of the research interval.


Many of the unarmed fatalities concerned males (95 %), white (40 %) or black (38 %), aged 20-39 (64 %). Regionally, unarmed encounters occurred most frequently within the south (38 %) and west (35 %) and least within the northeast (5 %).

The actions of those people, as documented by the researchers, clearly shattered the parable that they have been defenseless and non-threatening once they encountered the officers who killed them.

  • Almost half have been actively engaged in a bodily assault on the officer when shot. This most frequently concerned the usage of “private weapons” (palms, toes, tooth, head) and wrestling or fighting the officer. Second most typical was an try to disarm the officer. The bodily assault class additionally consists of precise disarming of the shooter or different officers of their gun, baton, CEW, handcuffs, or different tools; makes an attempt to drown the officer or throw her or him off a bridge, roof, stairs, or different elevated floor; choking the officer; or pushing the officer to the bottom after which mounting him.
  • In additional than a 3rd of the circumstances, the concerned officer perceived the “menace of an imminent assault.” This consists of “advancing/charging towards the officer” or making different “threatening or aggressive motion”; concealing palms “throughout a criminal offense or flight therefrom”; assuming a “capturing or combating stance” empty handed or with an object resembling or mistaken for a weapon; and reaching the place a weapon is likely to be hidden.
  • In a couple of cases, the unarmed suspect was shot whereas “escaping or eluding officers utilizing a automobile, recklessly endangering the general public or different officers.”

In all, the researchers tabulated, roughly 9 out of 10 of the “unarmed” offenders have been presenting an lively or doubtlessly deadly or severely injurious menace to the concerned officer or others when shot. Most weren’t fleeing however have been “not less than standing their floor in opposition to the officer or weren’t below management,” the research notes. (These shot by accident or via unintended discharges comprised about 12 % of the full.)

“When law enforcement officials used pressure,” the researchers say, “their actions have been virtually at all times in step with the accepted authorized and coverage ideas that govern legislation enforcement.”


Implicit within the findings is the necessity for extra balanced and complete reporting of police use of pressure in opposition to “unarmed” people.

“When the media painting the sufferer as unarmed and due to this fact defenseless (with out further context),” the researchers write, that may “actually affect public opinion in addition to [the] authorized end result.” It turns into “simpler to steer onlookers to just accept the argument that the capturing is unjustified as a result of the sufferer was unarmed.” And emotional assumptions “predicated on rumors, restricted data, or lies” then overrun exhausting proof within the public psyche.

As a working example, Shane and Swenson cite the capturing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, “the place [the] extensively held assumptions [that] Brown was unarmed and didn’t pose a menace to the officer couldn’t be overcome…however the factual proof that Brown bodily assaulted the officer.”

When the info have been offered, “a big section of the inhabitants failed to switch” their unarmed-and-defenseless assumption. “Certainly, the target proof was rejected…as a product of a failed prison justice system and illegitimate, biased investigators.”

When related data is “withheld or omitted, it’s tough if not inconceivable to achieve a sound [judgment], which is what occurs when residents are labeled by the media as unarmed throughout a deadly police capturing with out additional rationalization of the traits of the encounter….

“The idea that unarmed residents are usually not harmful, violent, or threatening is itself harmful to the lives of officers and the general public they’re sworn to guard.”

In passing, the researchers make this fascinating statement: “The chance of dying from a police-citizen encounter is exceptionally low and an unjustified fatality is even decrease.” It’s a proven fact that medical errors by medical doctors and nurses “kill many 1000’s extra Individuals yearly than do the police.” Some contend that “the American medical system is the main reason for demise and harm in the US.” But there may be “not almost the identical degree of public outcry” about that as about police shootings.

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