Killing by Law Enforcement in California: It's Not What You Think (Part I)

Posted on 14 January 2015

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionSend by emailSend by email

By Mike Males

Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

Who do cops shoot in California? The most powerful, tragic images are of young African Americans like Oscar Grant in 2009 and Ezell Ford last August, victims of harsh policing in racially segregated and underserved areas like east Oakland and south central Los Angeles. Yet in remote towns like Eureka and a cluster in the southern deserts (Desert Hot Springs, Vista, Perris, Hemet, and Indio), people are much more likely to be killed by officers — not just in per capita rates, but often in raw numbers.

Using killings classified as “deaths by legal intervention” by medical examiners and tabulated by the state Center for Health Statistics, CJCJ studied a decade of California law enforcement killings — 810 in all during the 2000s. It should be noted that these data may understate law enforcement killings, and some cities may be less likely to report such killings than others, but these are the most comprehensive numbers at this time.

For cities with at least five law enforcement killings between 2003 and 2010, Moreno Valley averaged 1.5 per year; Vista, 1.0; and Perris, 0.6. Meanwhile, officers in much-larger Oakland and Sacramento averaged 0.8 and 0.5 per year, respectively. In 2010, officers in Perris, Moreno Valley, and Hemet (combined population, 300,000) shot six people to death, while officers in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Compton (combined population, 4.4 million) killed five.

Of course, the state’s largest cities have the highest raw numbers: Los Angeles averaged 5.0 police killings per year, followed by San Diego, 3.5. But what’s causing the same number of officer-involved killings — one every 19 months — in Eureka (population, 21,000) as in Sacramento (population 472,000)? What could explain more officer killings in wealthy, suburban, Rancho Cucamonga than in similarly populated, poorer, gang-conflicted Salinas?

Cities long associated with aggressive policing such as L.A. (1.6 police fatal shootings per million population per year) and Oakland (2.5) actually have rates lower than or similar to the state average (2.1). Even a resident of the mean streets of Compton, four times more likely to be killed by police (9.0) than the average Californian, runs less than half the risk of someone in Desert Hot Springs (22.8).

Do officers in remote, rapidly growing “satellite cities” encounter more violent drug and human traffickers and fleeing suspects, with more shootouts? The demographics of victims suggest the answer is no. Of the six officer-shooting victims in three desert cities in 2010, two were white, two Latino, and two African American, ranging in age from 18 to 63, all local residents.

Most officer shootings in remote towns, as in cities, appear to result from confrontations with armed suspects. Still, there have been angry protests, such as followed the killing by Eureka police of unarmed Tommy McClain in September 2014, though these seem to draw little national attention.

Whatever the cause (including faulty statistics), California’s unexpected pattern shows that “officer-involved shootings” encompass a wide variety of circumstances and are hard to generalize. The ways in which California’s pattern does fit expectations is the subject of the next article.

This article was originally published at Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.