In the wake high-profile cases of police officers shooting and killing black men, a popular potential solution that emerged was clipping body cameras to officers’ uniforms ― 88 percent of Americans in a 2015 poll said they would support a proposal for police officers to wear body cameras.
In theory, documenting law enforcement interactions with civilians both discourages abuses of power and provides evidence in the event of an altercation or officer-involved shooting.
The White House funded a body camera initiative in 2015, and cameras have been rolled out in police departments across the country, including a 1,200-person pilot program that began in April in New York City, home to the nation’s largest police force. But body cameras are new and we don’t know have enough research on them yet to prove whether they improve relations between officers and the public. (Some studies have shown that body cameras reduce police use of force, while other research indicates the opposite.)
But according to researchers at the University of Indianapolis, we might be thinking about police officer shootings from the wrong angle.
“It was all focused fairly narrowly on changing the attitudes and behaviors of individual officers,” Aaron Kivisto, assistant professor in the College of Applied Behavioral Sciences at the University of Indianapolis, said of police reform measures such as body cameras and anti-violence training.
Kivisto is the lead author of a study published May 18 in the American Journal of Public Health, which explored the opposite side of the equation: the physical environment officers work in and whether that affects how often police officers turn their weapons on civilians.
The key finding: The behavior of individuals officers (read: bad, biased or untrained cops) isn’t only factor determining whether you’re likely to be shot by police. It’s also the laws in your state, particularly firearm laws.
“Depending on the strength of the gun laws in the state that you live in, you have a different risk of being shot by police,” Kivisto said.
To reach that assessment, the researchers analyzed fatal police shooting data from the Guardian’s database, The Counted, which has been tracking people killed by police officers in the United States since 2015, and scores from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which ranks states based on the strength or weakness of their firearm laws.
After controlling for age, education, violent crime and household gun ownership rates, the researchers found that residents of states with the strongest gun laws were 51 percent less likely to be shot than people living in states with the weakest gun laws.
The link between weak gun laws and being shot by the police
While the new data can’t answer exactly what’s causing civilians to be shot by police officers in states with lax gun laws, Kivisto theorized that stricter gun laws keep firearms out of the wrong hands, meaning police officers might be less likely to encounter a civilian armed with an illegal firearm, for example.
It’s a situation Marquez Claxton, a retired NYPD detective and the director of public relations and political affairs for the Black Law Enforcement Alliance, understands firsthand.
“Less stringent gun laws place additional burdens on the officer and severely decrease the margin of error for law enforcement action,” Claxton told HuffPost.
Still, Claxton doesn’t believe that we can legislate our way out of the U.S.’s police shooting problem.
“Gun violence, particularly officer-involved shootings, will not be significantly decreased by laws alone and require a holistic, comprehensive examination of what factors actually trigger the shootings,” he said.
States can’t fix this problem on their own
Without a federal database tracking police shootings, roughly two years of media-collected statistics make up the most complete data available. Still, 22 months of data aren’t enough to definitely prove that a wave of state firearm laws would drive down police officer shootings.
“We don’t have a national database on traffic stops, we don’t have a national database on pedestrian stops, we don’t have a national database on use of force,” Sharad Goel, a professor at the Stanford School of Engineering and a member of the research project Law, Order and Algorithms, told HuffPost last summer. “It’s not a great state of affairs for understanding police encounters with the public.”
Lack of long-term data over time means it may be impossible to fully answer why there’s a link between strong firearm laws and fewer police shootings.
“It could be that states that happen to train their officers better also by chance have stronger gun laws,” Kivisto noted.
One outlier in the study was California, which received the highest score of any state from the Brady Center for its firearm laws, but also ranked among the states with the highest rate of fatal police officer shootings.
That’s likely because state borders are porous, meaning that strong gun laws in Chicago, for example, don’t keep firearms purchased in neighboring Indiana, which has much weaker gun laws, out of the city.
“What that points to is that one of the strongest reasons why these laws need to be federal laws, as opposed to state laws,” Kivisto said. “There needs to be some uniformity.”
Previous research has shown that states with high levels of gun ownership have more firearm violence in general, from homicides to suicides to police officers killed on the job.
But given the United States’ deeply entrenched gun culture and the approximately 310 million guns already in the country, regulating the guns in circulation is both a more viable and less controversial public health tactic than trying to reduce the number of firearms in the U.S.
“The argument isn’t that there need to be less guns,” Kivisto stressed. “The argument is it needs to be monitored so that those who shouldn’t have them not have them.”