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A timely tome calls for more research on police killings and training that emphasizes that “lives matter”

When Police Kill

Franklin E. Zimring
Harvard University Press
320 pp.
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On 19 August 2014, Michael Brown—an unarmed 18-year-old African American—was shot dead by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Witnesses gave varying accounts of the shooting, which occurred when Officer Darren Wilson responded to a call implicating Brown in an incident of shoplifting and assault at a local convenience store, and a grand jury chose not to indict Wilson. But the black community in Ferguson drew its own conclusions.

Demonstrations and civil unrest followed. Together with police killings in other cities, including several that happened to be captured on video, Brown’s death gave spark and fuel to what came to be known as the “Black Lives Matter” movement. The accompanying vilification of the police undercut morale and appears to have led precincts in some cities to partially retreat from proactive engagement with the public. Some observers believe that the surge in urban gun violence in the past two years is one consequence of this “Ferguson effect” (1). Given these events, When Police Kill, which offers the first thorough analysis of homicides committed by police in the United States, could not be timelier.

Franklin Zimring, a distinguished, data-minded law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, begins by making the case that police killings of civilians is in fact a serious problem worthy of national concern. Such incidents are by no means a new problem, he argues, but before Ferguson, the media and scholars alike tended to ignore them, and available data were largely worthless. Zimring and others maintain that the three federal data compilations kept by the FBI, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Vital Statistics system to count the number of such killings were and are seriously flawed, understating the total by at least 50%. The true number, as calculated from media searches conducted by The Washington Post and The Guardian and cited by Zimring, is over 1000 per year. More fundamentally, he points out that in the aftermath of Ferguson, the issue has been transformed from a collection of local stories that tended to portray officers’ actions as justified responses to threatening situations to being increasingly acknowledged as a systemic violation of civil rights that is worthy of national concern.

Michael B. Thomas/Stringer/Getty Images

Demonstrators march to a vigil marking the two-year anniversary of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

One source of the outrage that has arisen in recent years is the failure of the courts to hold officers accountable for even the most seemingly gratuitous killings. Zimring’s rough overall estimate is that only 1 in 1000 officers who kill is ultimately convicted of a felony. But he points out that while there may be de facto immunity as a result of public sympathy for the police and the reluctance of district attorneys to jeopardize their relationships with law enforcement, a large share of police killings probably are legally justifiable. Thus, although Zimring believes it would be useful to amend federal and state criminal codes to better define police liability for use of deadly force, he does not believe that a few additional prosecutions and convictions would reduce the overall volume of killings. Rather, his prescription focuses on police leadership.

Zimring believes that if police departments made reducing the number of killings by their officers a priority, creating new rules of engagement reinforced through extensive training, then there would be fewer deaths and, presumably, less damage to police-community relationships. His main evidence that killings could be greatly reduced without jeopardizing the safety of officers begins with some remarkable international data.

The U.S. rate of police killing is a large multiple of the rates found in Canada, Britain, Germany, and other developed nations, he finds—much larger than can be explained by the fact that U.S. police encounters are more likely to involve suspects armed with guns. In essence, his argument is a proof of concept: If other nations have figured out how to have so few police killings, then the United States can, too.

Among the rules of engagement, Zimring believes that there should be an emphasis on the constitutional standard that proscribes the use of deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect. In a departmental regime that stresses that “lives matter,” he believes that nonlethal means of responding to tense situations would be better used. He does not discuss the role of mental illness, but I would argue that better training for dealing with individuals made dangerous by psychotic delusions should be on the agenda as well.

Although Zimring makes good use of available data, he stresses that the importance of the subject merits a substantial investment in better data systems and a research program funded by the federal government. His proposal is to marry the study of civilian deaths and injuries by police officers with the study of assaults on police officers by civilians. In that latter domain, we have one evidence-based success story: the introduction of Kevlar body armor, which has saved hundreds of police from mortal injury. Better science may be able to show the way for limiting killings by the police while preserving their safety and effectiveness as enforcers.


  1. Police Foundation and Major Cities Chiefs Association, “Reducing Violent Crime in American Cities: An Opportunity to Lead” (Washington, DC, 2017)

About the author

The reviewer is at the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708, USA.