Franklin Zimring on When Police Kill
Aug 24 2020

When-Police-Kill-199x300.jpg Franklin Zimring's 2017 book, When Police Kill, starts with an alarming statistic: Roughly 1,000 Americans die each year at the hands of police. Zimring, criminologist and law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, talks about his book with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Zimring argues that better policing practices can reduce the number of citizens killed by the police. He also discusses the barriers that stand in the way of more effective and safer policing.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Aug 24 2020 at 9:04am

Oh wow, turns out knives, knife attacks, attacks with baseball bats, etc,  aren’t really all that dangerous, and certainly aren’t something against which one should use deadly force to defend themselves.  I naively thought those things were highly dangerous and it’d be morally and legally correct to protect myself in a way that would most quickly end the fight and defend my health and life, but you’ve taught me that’s wrong (presumably I should use my fists to fight it out with the person and take my chances, or just let them continue their attack since it’s statistically unlikely to result in my death).

Thanks for the education!

Aug 24 2020 at 9:20am

A very interesting discussion, and I hope that Prof. Zimring’s book and efforts spur improvements in data collection/data analysis in this area.  I found two areas of the discussion problematic.

First, Prof. Zimring was solely focused on civilian weapons that could kill police (guns) and dismissed weapons like knives and baseball bats that cause very few police deaths when it came to his analysis of deadly force use.  However, the latter weapons can effectively kill police livelihoods.  From loss of an eye to maiming of an appendage to literally having your head bashed in, knives and baseball bats can inflict significant damage.  To ask police to effectively battle those alleged criminals on their own terms is asking a lot (perhaps too much).  I don’t recall any discussion of ‘shoot to wound’ – a well-placed shot to the thigh can incapacitate a lot of knife/bat wielding alleged criminals.

Second, Prof. Zimring’s legal scheme where having large verdicts leveled against ‘the system’ would fix everything reminds me of a previous EconTalk discussion on high-demand traffic pricing/tolls.  The issue there was the people who changed their driving patterns to drive outside of rush hour didn’t receive the cash payment from the toll payers….a gap in the incentive loop, if you will.  Here, the people who would pay the large verdicts would be the taxpayers of a given community, not the police offers themselves, nor the chiefs nor the mayors.  Sure, they might lose their jobs, but we’ve seen plenty of cases where they can all get rehired somewhere else/run again later and win reelection.  But it’s the everyday citizens who will foot the bill for these verdicts through higher taxes.  Maybe the argument is they’ll demand enough change in the system to fend off future lawsuits…..but if the amounts are too high, they’ll just move, and then the city is trying to pay off larger verdicts with a declining tax base.  I appreciated his brief discussion of ending qualified immunity near the end of the podcast because that could have a direct effect on incentives, but I don’t see how the ‘large verdicts’ would.

Aug 25 2020 at 11:12am

In light of the horrific events in Kenosha, it’s worth noting that the situation began with a domestic violence call. Per Prof. Zimring’s comments, I can’t help but wonder how differently the situation would have turned out had social workers (or similar unit) been dispatched instead of the police.

Further, per news reports, Kenosha has already paid out a “large verdict” because of a previous police incident. That doesn’t appear to have led to the kind of systematic change there that Prof. Zimring predicted.

Earl Rodd
Aug 25 2020 at 3:58pm

You suggest sending social workers to DV calls? This would require all social workers to be armed and trained in arms. I don’t think this idea would get far. The problem is that when the call comes in, the police (or social worker) do not know what they are about to encounter. You can fantasize that the Kenosha event would have turned out nicely. Maybe it would have. I always think of the incident a personal friend encountered one day (a policeman) on what looked like a pretty simple DV call – all was pleasant enough suddenly he was in a fight to get a gun away from the fellow. Thankfully my friend succeeded and no one was shot. Just one of those and I don’t think social workers would be so keen for the job.

Mark Brady
Aug 27 2020 at 6:03pm

In the interviews with police I’ve seen and shows like Cops and Live PD, the DV calls seem to be the most unpredictable. A majority of times there’s alcohol or drugs involved which enhance the chances of things spiraling out of control.

Same with traffic stops, the number of dashcam videos of simple stops turning into shootouts is hard to believe.

Aug 26 2020 at 11:29am

Have you ever fired a gun?  Police are trained to shoot in the chest because it has the highest probability of inflicting a debilitating wound per round.  Aiming for the thigh is a fools errand.

Mark Brady
Aug 27 2020 at 5:59pm


Movies have created a meme that shooting-to-wound is a real thing. The marksman police officer who can shoot a hole in a flying nickel is really, a guy or gal, whose adrenaline is coursing through their muscles, the situation is dynamic, they’re trying to make sure to avoid crossfire and scanning the background for civilians, and they’re supposed to shoot the thigh? Not like a .40cal to the femoral artery is a big deal.

Todd Mora
Aug 24 2020 at 11:24am

Once again a very interesting and thought provoking discussion.

Here are a few thoughts:

 I would be interested in Frank Zimring’s experience in actually having to physically restrain or apprehend someone.  He speaks with absolute certainty about what presents a threat to a LEO’s life or well being, however, I suspect his actual experience with those situations is either very very limited or nonexistent.   Having been in a single instance where, as a civilian, I assisted a police officer who was by himself trying to subdue a violent suspect who was fighting the officer.  The officer had to take the suspect to the ground and wrestle him into handcuffs.  I ran up and asked the officer how I could help.  His response was “please make sure he doesn’t get grab my gun.”   At that moment I got a very small glimpse into the world of being an LEO.  I was never so focused and scared in my life.  I didn’t know what I was going to do, however, I did know I would do anything to make sure the suspect never got the officer’s gun.  Mr. Zimring might benefit from a similar experience in knowing what actually presents a danger to LEOs.
His off-hand dismissal of  Russ’s suggestion of eliminating police unions is extremely telling.  Public sector unions have created almost impenetrable walls between bad actors and any accountability.  Start with eliminating the unions and metering out effective discipline and let’s see what the results are from that step before giving a huge sop to the plaintiff’s bar through mega-million dollar taxpayer funded awards.
His comment about not making arrests should cause everyone to take pause.  What are the unintended consequences of creating an environment where people commit violent crimes and run from the police knowing the police will not give pursuit if there is a small chance of a negative outcome.  I think we’re seeing that played out in Seattle, Portland, etc.   When LEOs decide to stay in the car, we will all suffer.

As always, thank you to Russ Roberts for presenting an important topic in respectful and informative manner.

Aug 24 2020 at 12:03pm

I disagree with Frank we don’t need to capture this data at the national level.  This will only lead to policing becoming more centralized and more nationalized.  People are taking actions themselves.  Gun sales have gone through the roof, Google bought ADT, and condo prices have been crushed.  This should be local issues, but isn’t…election year?  African Americans didn’t come out in 2016 59.6% polled versus 66.6% polled in 2012 said they voted.  I wonder if they will be voting this year?

Bob Lynch
Aug 24 2020 at 1:35pm

Wow!  I can find so many errors in Frank’s arguments- where to start. He seems to dismiss that in every altercation or resisted arrest that the police know a priori that the suspect does not have a gun. Put yourself into the mind of the police officer in a high stress situation. The one thing they do know and that’s there is at least one gun present and that is there own. If they become overpowered by the suspect they know that their gun might be used against them. Should they wait until they determine if the suspect is going to use their knife or baseball bat to gain control of the situation?  Another fact that seems to me to be severely flawed is the statistic of suspects who have died from police shooting in NYC between the 1970’s (70) and current (7). Doesn’t this need to be looked at in the context of violent crime in NYC in that same period?  In the 1970’s I believe there were more than 1,000 murders per year in NYC and more recently that number has been in the 300-ish range. This seems to portend that there would be less police encounters in general. Maybe there’s better info in his book but based on this podcast I come away with the feeling that he is generally “anti police.”

Aug 24 2020 at 1:51pm

Classic armchair quarterbacking.

I’m biased towards the police for sure.  That being said, there are bad cops and the unions protect them.  Google “Dance of the Lemons” and “Passing the Trash” to understand how cops get reassigned for a “fresh start”.

National data like the Washington Post are useful, but there are curious gaps.  It shouldn’t be hard to collect sex and race.  A call to the coroner should clear that up?

The comments about baseball bats and knives’ were ridiculous.

Travis Blake
Aug 24 2020 at 6:20pm

After hearing Prof. Zimring’s comments that only shootings (as opposed to knives) place officers at risk, I couldn’t help but conclude that he has no idea what he is talking about.  For a better take on police shootings, I would recommend David Klinger (sociologist, author, and former police officer) as a guest.  Thanks.

Dan Steward
Aug 24 2020 at 7:49pm

I found the episode very thought provoking.  Two of those thoughts:

1.  Why are unions not held liable for their members’ indiscretions?  I have often wondered this about teachers’ unions, but the same would apply to police unions.  If the unions were held liable for the actions of their members, their would be an incentive to “police your own”.

If unions are going to protect their worst actors,  we will judge them by their worst actors.  Culture is important.

2.  Effective training and tactics have to be developed by those who are involved in the day to day mission of law enforcement if their is to be buy-in to change.

Mark Brady
Aug 27 2020 at 6:09pm

I’m no fan of most unions but why would they be liable? What statute did they break? Maybe we should hold the Elks or Rotarian’s liable for when their members transgress? How about the Board who certify doctors? The Teachers’ Unions for teachers who assault children?

I don’t get it.



John Pattee
Aug 24 2020 at 11:29pm

This knife vs knife fair fight talk is nonsense. Police should always be better armed.



Joseph Crivelli
Aug 25 2020 at 12:03am

Fascinating podcast. Thank you.

It reminds me, growing up a family friend was an FBI agent and we talked about how G Men are seen in movies and how that differs so much from reality.

You might see scores of trench-coated agents in street combat with gamgsters, leaving dozens of casualties in the aftermath of a battle. Maybe the bad guy gets away, or gets caught at the end of the movie. At the time—1980s—in stark contrast to fictional depictions the total number of killed FBI agents killed in the live of duty was less than you might see in a single gangster movie. Why is that? FBI tend to sneak up on 1 or 2 bad guys with 25 agents. No gun-brandishing, no street fighting.

Looking at yesterday’s video of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police officers during a daytime domestic incident is hauntingly instructive. Those officers clearly have no idea how to de-escalate a domestic disturbance.  They obviously have not been trained to do what is required. But they have been trained to use lethal force.

Some administrative accountability is obvious.

Mark Brady
Aug 27 2020 at 6:10pm

Interesting that you failed to mention the responsibility of Jacob Blake to comply with the directions of the officers.

Aug 25 2020 at 1:02pm

I have not read professor Zimring’s book, but based on my review of the data and the issue I found several of his points inaccurate or misrepresenting the actual data. Using the Washington post data I created an index based on the level of threat posed by each victim. First, from 2015-2019, 63% of the civilian victims were attacking the police. 59% of victims were armed and attacking police. Another, 31% of victims were armed. Only 7% of victims appeared to pose limited threat, because they were unarmed and either fleeing or appearing to cooperate.  Based on these numbers the potential threat that all these victims posed was substantial.

Second, professor Zimring uses population numbers to show that the risk of death or bodily harm to the police is minimal, while not also pointing out that the population risk to citizens is also extraordinarily low. 1000 people per year means the population risk is .ooo3%. This suggests that police killing civilians is not pervasive.

Third, professor Zimring uses the wrong basis  for calculating police homicides. The correct calculation is the share of individuals killed after a contact with police. Without knowing the number of contacts we can not really understand or estimate the actual rate of police killings.  I also would observe that his dismissal of causality is troubling. Any causal relationships that undermined his narrative he simply dismissed. Not using regression is not a reason to dismiss causality.

Fourth, professor Zimring seems to make a category error, there is no’The Police”. As professor Zimring points out there is no single national police force there are 18,000 police agencies, several with overlapping jurisdiction, but able to set their own local policies and procedures. To understand how widespread the problem is we need to disaggregate as much as possible. There are distinct differences between agencies and communities. I am in the process of looking at police killings at the state, county and municipal levels. My preliminary findings are that at the county and municipal levels the problem of police killings is marginal and isolated. There are a few places that are outliers and there should be more focus on these places.

My general response was that professor Zimring presentation seemed more ideological than empirically or evidence based.



Earl Rodd
Aug 25 2020 at 4:12pm

While the host did his usual excellent job of interviewing, I found the guest without much content. Beyond his knowing a lot of numbers, he seemed to know almost nothing about the subject.  He seemed to have never interviewed police or watched video of their work. He did not seem knowledgeable of the processes all over the country in refining police procedures and training, only some numbers anyone could find with a few minutes work. He did not seem aware of the body of research on police personalities and how that can be used in police selection and training.  He cited a stand alone statistic on the number of calls that have to do with domestic situations, yet he did not seem to be aware of the fact that many of those deal with mental illness and he certainly did not seem aware of the large nationwide effort in training police in how to handle mental illness (a goal is to keep someone with an illness from compounding their and their family’s problems with a criminal record). I personally volunteer to participate in a panel that is part of the extensive Crisis Intervention Training for police departments all over our county – enough officers are trained that family members are taught to ask for a CIT officer if they have to call 911 for a person with mental illness who is a violent or a threat of  violence to themselves or others.

The guest’s talk of “solutions” was mostly rather vague like no one else, who knows more than him, has ever  thought about the matter. His one specific suggestion was a large dollar transfer from taxpayers to tort lawyers – talk about a rent seeking opportunity! Does he know anything about the complex messes police deal with?

Finally, I thought the host did a good job of pushing back on the idea that reducing civilian deaths at the hands of police could not possible lead to more crime. Changing police procedures always has the danger of being a general “soft on crime” regime which leads to more crime. Again. discussion of specific changes to training or procedures which seems to lower the number of deaths would have been helpful.

I must admit the guest got off to a bad start using the Guardian and the Washington Post as sources of for the claim in 1000 civilian deaths per year at the hands of police. Maybe the book had more evidence, but that did not come across in what he said.


Kevin Ryan
Aug 25 2020 at 5:41pm

I’d like to share a couple of thoughts I had while listening to this.

First, having listened to a number of Taleb interviews, it seemed to me the idea that police shouldn’t use guns when the average risk of being killed by someone attacking them was low, did not align with what he has been telling us about the need to guard against low probability events with damaging outcomes.

Secondly, I thought it odd to criticise Police Unions supporting their members accused of an unlawful killing;  in a legislative environment which accepts/champions the idea applied more generally that 1) a person is innocent until proven guilty and 2) they are defended in court by a person who tries to get them acquitted irrespective of whether they committed the crime in question.

Ajit Kirpekar
Aug 26 2020 at 11:51am

Thank you for your post.

I want to highlight something you mentioned and that struck me in this episode. The moment the guest started throwing around statistics that clearly delineated justified shooting and unjustified shooting, I was very concerned about how he knew one from the other and how reliable the data quality was for such comments.

He didn’t sufficiently address this point, if at all, which is rather telling.

Aug 25 2020 at 8:16pm

Here, the guest discusses the risk to officers’ lives:

But, that, in a country of 300 million people with 650,000 police is talking about a very, very tiny death risk in any attack or cumulatively over the year. It’s much more dangerous to drive around the city. It’s much more dangerous. That 96[?]%–

It seems like he could also frame the risk to civilian deaths by the police the same way, but chose not to. Rather he talked about ‘100s per year’ without denominators.

Also worth mentioning to the person who suggested a thigh shot for a knife wielder, that might work if you hit. But statistically, that’s a low % shot. How many misses do you get before getting a knife in you or your gun taken away?


Adam Morningstar
Aug 25 2020 at 9:16pm

Dr. Roberts,

My name is Adam Morningstar and I am a major crimes detective in Sarasota Florida.  I have been a law enforcement officer for eighteen years.  In that time I have worked as a patrolman, a tactical officer in a street crimes unit, a foot patrol officer, a bicycle officer, and now as a detective.  I have worked predominantly in black neighborhoods in the northern part of my city, as well as downtown, which faces many of the same homelessness problems seen around the country.  I am a husband to my wife Allison, and father to my two children.  I coached my sons’ football teams, we camp, hunt, fish, and go boating.  Law enforcement, while a fun, exhilarating, and a noble profession, is just a job to me.  A job that creates the economic freedom and security to have an enjoyable and rewarding life.  

I have been a fan of the show for a while, and I particularly like the guests who have views that differ from my own.  I’m writing you today about your most recent Econtalk guest, Franklin Zimring.  I must confess that the episode angered me, and made me think, which is the hallmark of a great conversation in my book.  I would like to address a few of the issues I disagreed with in the episode, and hope that they will help provide some counterbalance to his ideas.  I would be ecstatic if this email lead to a further dialogue, I would love to hear back from you!

I noticed that the majority of the conversation surrounded whether shootings are “necessary”.  There is a reason why this is not the legal standard outlined by the high courts with regard to lethal force incidents involving police.  The fact of the matter is that in order to determine necessity one must have most, if not all, of the facts for a given situation.  If I asked you if it was necessary to spend one million dollars on an 800 square foot apartment, you would tell me that you needed more information.  Is the apartment in a posh neighborhood in New York City?  Does the apartment have an ocean view? Or is the apartment in Marrietta, GA?  You need more information to determine necessity.  Unfortunately in law enforcement, you rarely get the amount of information necessary to make a determination of necessity.  That is why the standard set by the high courts of this country is whether or not the lethal force was “reasonable”.  It measures the facts at the given moment that lethal force was used in an effort to determine if the force used was reasonable for the given situation.  It’s all about what is reasonable at the time, not what was necessary in retrospect.  “Necessary” is an impossible standard to hold police officers to, and this has been acknowledged and codified by the courts of this land.

You were on to something when you challenged Dr. Zimring about edged weapons, and there relatively small threat to life.  The saying “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight” applies here.  The reason why there is a relatively small threat to life with knives is because a firearm is an effective tool to neutralize an individual with an edged weapon.  I would also like to point out that the agreed upon force science shows that even the most proficient officers, with regard to firearms handling, need a minimum of 19 feet to draw, aim, and fire their weapon at a person who charges them with a knife.  That gap grows exponentially as the officer’s proficiency declines.  Therefore, any subject brandishing a knife within 19 feet of an officer is an imminent threat to that officer’s life.

There was discussion attempting to differentiate the display of a knife, to an assault with a knife.  I would just like to point out that a person is brandishing a knife, until they aren’t.  Meaning that the time it takes for a brandishing situation to become an assault situation is incalculably short.

Coupled with the above conversation was a discussion of risk and trade offs.  Dr Zimring seems to think that there is value in accepting a small increase in risk to the police officer (implementing “don’t shoot” “stop shoot” rules) if there is a seemingly greater good effect for the subject being encountered.  While I don’t disagree that there are tradeoffs and risks to all things, I want to warn against applying economic statistics and aggregations to police officers.  If a reform is undertaken that increases an officers risk of death to 2% on a given encounter, we may be okay with that as a community I suppose.  However, if you are the officer who is going to be part of the 2%, then your chance of death is %100.  I want to make sure, as we consider these things, that we don’t lose sight that police officers are individuals.  Individuals who deserve more than to be clumped together in some statistical analysis, and then considered as an acceptable loss by the communities they serve.

There is yet another discussion that involves risk.  I thought of it especially when one of the solutions by Dr. Zimring involved financial judgements against law enforcement.  I am fortunate enough to work for an agency that pays well relative to surrounding jurisdictions.  However, many of my colleagues work for around $20 per hour at some of these other agencies.  At what point will the risk of being a police officer (i.e. prison or a large financial judgement against you) become too great relative to the pay?  At what point will overqualified people, of whom there are many at my agency, simply go do something else?  What will be left then? Who will be responding? A glorified “mall cop”?  NFL players make exorbitant salaries in part because their careers are risky, and often shortened by injury.  Will we see a day and age similar to overseas security contractors?   They accept huge risks, in short bursts, but have to be paid massive salaries to endure said risk?  My father gets pissed when his property taxes go up by $20…I don’t think society is ready for the costs associated with the scenario I ponder.

Law enforcement is doing too much in our current society.  Quite frankly law enforcement has it’s hands in too many situations where it doesn’t belong.  From social work, to homeless outreach, to community service based policing (which is a perversion of traditional community based policing).  We are currently tasked with more and more responsibilities because it is convenient.  It benefits police administrators, who get to ask for bigger budgets.  It also benefits politicians, who get to project an idea that they are doing something about a given issue.  This has lead to massive inefficiency in the economy of law enforcement resources as officers are tasked with doing non-law enforcement jobs.  This is an area I am passionate about, and agree with some of the more thoughtful “defund police” proponents.  When deciding what tasks we need law enforcement to do going forward we need to run the idea through the following rubric: Do we need people with guns, and arrest powers, to solve this problem?  If the answer is “no” then mayors and city managers need to find another way.  If someone is robbing a local drug store, then you need people with guns and arrest powers to respond.  If a homeless person needs to be educated on the proper place to find a given service, then you do not need men with guns and arrest powers.  Quite frankly I find America’s current over reliance on law enforcement ironically Un-American.  Alexi De Tocqueville compared citizens of the United States to citizens of France who encounter the problem of cart that has flipped over in the roadway.  He wrote that the French citizens will wait around for a constable/city official to arrive and resolve the problem.  Whereas, Americans will simply resolve the situation themselves and move on with their day.  We need to get back to solving our problems without the involvement of the government.

Dr Zimring kept referring to lethal force being authorized when an officer percieves a personal threat.  I just want to point out that court rulings have upheld that police officers have the right to intervene with lethal force to protect the public as well.  For instance, someone brandishing a knife must be dealt with prior to entering a crowded shopping mall and mingling with shoppers within.

At only one point did I become offended by the misinformation provided by Dr Zimring.  Dr Zimring’s assertion that police are trained to “make sure” when they use deadly force  is absoultely absurd, and made me question whether he was even a thoughtful person on these matters.  He must know, but since he apparently doesn’t I will make it clear, “make sure” is not a thing.  That is never, and has never been an axiom of any law enforcement training anywhere in the modern era.  Again, that statement was absurd, and I wished you would have pushed back on it a little more.

There was a discussion about a drop in officer injury/death occurring at the same time as an increase in aggressive policing.  Don’t forget that advancements in weapons, tactics, body armor, and vehicle safety (most police lives are lost in traffic crashes) may account for the increased safety of officers in recent years, not progressive policing policies in places like Philadelphia.

Dr Zimring suggested arresting people “later” when their identity is known and they are likely to violently resist arrest.  This is obviously a very slippery slope.  Doesn’t the public have a right to be safe and secure?  What about revenge actions taken against victim’s who have reported an incident? How about witnesses that have risked their safety to come forward and give a statement against a suspect?  Don’t they deserve as swift an apprehension as possible?  What makes anyone think that a suspect won’t violently resist later?  Especially when the modern criminal is conditioned to understand that he doesn’t have to be arrested right now if he doesn’t want to be.  This is bizarro world stuff to me.

Okay, now that I have told you all the ways I disagree with Dr. Zimring, let me illustrate some of the places where I agree with him.  He produced France and Germany as having a lower fatality rate of police relative to the U.S.  He correlated that to stricter gun control measures.  I will say that my views relative to gun control have become more liberal as I grow older, and as the weapons that Americans purchase look less and less like hunting implements, and more like infantry weapons.  However, I fear that the horse is out of the barn so-to-speak with this matter, and we are left to just sort out the mess that is left behind.

I also agree fully that police unions get bad officers off the hook.  In Florida I think 97+ percent of terminated officers get their jobs back eventually.  Most with all backpay due to them during the time they were terminated.  The only thing I would caution you about as it relates to officer’s rights and union power, is that these protections exist for a reason.  Mayors, Chiefs, and Sheriffs have launched rogue investigations of officers for various reasons.  Much like the Bill of Rights, which was penned by the Founding Father’s because of English Tyranny, so too has the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights been born from the misdeeds of law enforcement administrators and city/county officials.

In closing, I heard you mention that these shootings “look horrible”.  No matter how much reform we do, government using lethal force on its own citizens is NEVER going to look good, no matter how justified it is and no matter how much we reform our system.  I am open to new ideas, and I think there is a lot of good dialogue to be had if we all step out of our echo chambers and engage each other!

Michael McEvoy
Aug 26 2020 at 9:01am

I think Russ should have you on as a guest. Thanks for taking the time to make such a thoughtful response.

John P.
Sep 1 2020 at 9:45am

This is another vote for having Mr. Morningstar as a guest.

One additional question I would put to Prof. Zimring:  How do we know that the current number of killings by police isn’t the optimal number of such killings?

Sep 24 2020 at 8:49am

This discussion is meaningless without any idea of the percentage of violent interactions with police. What is that denominator of resisting arrest and police shootings?  Or of police response to violence? Or armed suspects?  No context here.

Aug 26 2020 at 4:28pm

Similar to the above comment on bystanders at risk: If someone is unstable, has a weapon and flees, you can’t just wait to eventually find them. If you don’t take action, someone else may be injured or killed and then you’re really going to wish action was taken earlier.

Aug 26 2020 at 7:33pm

I believe Mr. Zimring knew or should have known and Russ probably didn’t, but the threshold for lethal force is not a suspect threatening an officer with a gun.  Graham vs. Connor, the precedent setting Supreme Court case, established that officers may respond to a deadly force threat or a threat of serious bodily injury with lethal force.  This analysis is based on a reasonable officer’s perspective considering the threat, severity of the crime, and resistance of the subject in situations that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving.  This means police don’t have to be perfect, but a use of force must be reasonable from the perspective of a similarly situated officer.

Not so easy being a police in situations where one has to make split second, life-changing decisions.  Each case is different and each must be analyzed under the aforementioned criteria.

Ben Riechers
Aug 26 2020 at 10:16pm

As part of his first response, he stated, “And, we never added them up.” In his second response, “…you never add it up…”  Heather Mac Donald might find that surprising.

Having just enjoyed and shared Radical Uncertainty, the guest was hard to take seriously and was possibly the least persuasive EconTalk guest ever.  Plus, his solution (presented with great certainty) that the only way to solve this was by creating incentives via massive legal settlements didn’t seem to square with the progress in NYC and Philadelphia.

His certainly about his analysis caused me to wonder about the quality of his data.  It would not be surprising to me to learn that he had his answers before he started gathering data.

There is no doubt that reform is needed and I think police unions have become to powerful and need to part of the reform.  If drunk drivers had a union, they would never lose their license until they killed someone.

One other observation, our town of 30,000 people has great church attendance and one of the smallest budgets for police in the state.


Mark Brady
Aug 27 2020 at 6:51pm


There’s a major fallacy in the argument of Zimring. He concluded that only 50% of situation had a gun involved. That’s a gross mischaracterization if not a total lie. 100% of all interactions with a LEO have a gun involved — The officer’s.

He or she can’t risk a confrontation with a miscreant armed with a bat or a knife or even bare handed. Because when the tazer doesn’t taze or the pepper spray doesn’t incapacitate, the perp can stun or cut or punch an officer and take their gun.

No better example than the shooting in Atlanta. In a hand-to-hand altercation with TWO police officers, Rayshard Brooks grabbed for something on the officer’s belt and retrieved a stun gun. Shot one officer with it and hit him and tried to shoot another. What if he didn’t get the stun gun and instead got the service weapon?


Don’t shoot at police

Don’t resist arrest

Don’t charge at police with a knife

Don’t reach into your car when being order not to.

Focusing on the responsibility of the police without any mention of the actions of the person shot and killed by police.

I shouldn’t say all, because of cases like Daniel Shaver.

There are unintended consequences you should have researched before the interview. It’s called the Ferguson Effect. When the police feel attacked by the public and the press. When they’re told their safety is not important, they stop putting themselves in dangerous situations, and more citizens are murdered. You tried to make the no-free-lunch argument you just should have had the facts. If it’s even one additional murder over baseline in the nation’s 500 largest cities, there’s your additional 500 deaths you’re trying to eliminate. I’m sure your guest would beam with pride at the drop in police killing of citizens while he was able to look right past the extra citizen deaths that just get lost in the news.

Russ, you should know the truth about Michael Brown. He violently assaulted the officer and was struggling for his gun when he was shot. The Obama DoJ investigated and cleared the officer. Let’s not keep this meme alive.

No mention of suicide by cop. I really believe that in some of these cases, the hopelessness in some of our poorer citizens leads them into worlds where being murdered is just part of life and whether their own murder happens at the hands of a rival gang or a police officer is irrelevant to that person. Why else would you draw down on armed cops? They must know they’re gonna shoot and are probably more facile with a gun.

There are also unintended consequences of large settlements. Would seeing that happen make you, gentle reader, more or less likely to recommend becoming a police officer to your son or daughter? I wouldn’t. I would see that as a devaluing of the lives of officers and I would dissuade by daughter if she showed interest. That’s probably decreasing the quality of applicants and pay goes down and morale falls. I don’t think that’s a strategy for success. Do what the cops tell you, don’t resist, don’t attack them, five or six 9’s percent chance that everyone goes home that night intact.

Mark Brown
Oct 11 2020 at 12:55pm

Excellent points.

 Hindsight cannot be the perspective to view “reasonableness.”
A gun is always involved.
An increase in LEO risk may have devastating effects in crime prevention.
Most important: never once in the discussion was there a mention of the personal responsibility of the person resisting arrest–whatever the form.  Our tolerance should be extremely low for resisting arrest.  Once a person begins to resist, the inherent risk should dramatically shift to the resister and away from the LEO.

Jackson P
Aug 28 2020 at 12:21am

Very good conversation, especially coming in light of the recent incidents in the news. What really stuck with me from the conversation is how little good data we actually collect on policing, especially shocking when this deals with life and death.

As I read through the comments, it’s striking how many commentators see policing as inherently confrontational thus the use of force is necessary.

I feel the majority of police who use excessive force or kill are not doing it out of cruelty but a warped sense of fear, and I feel that’s Zimring’s point as well. There is an inherent risk in the policing profession, and police officers have a right to protect their livelihood. But it is rarely asked how the interaction with the police and the assailants could have devolved into this situation.

The reasons are myriad and date back to the founding of this nation, but small steps need to be made in all areas. The first step is to understand what the role of a police officer is in the community and what training we can provide them to better de-escalate the situation.

Eugene C
Aug 28 2020 at 2:31am

My goodness. So many comments here asserting that civilians must follow police instruction, full stop period.

What if officers give an unlawful command or instruction? Must I comply with that unlawful command? If I must comply with unlawful police instruction, at risk of death if I do not, then in what practical sense do I have the right to be free from unreasonable search or seizure or false imprisonment? What is the point of having rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution or the bill of rights if police are justified in killing me for exercising those rights? Lawsuits are retroactive – they are a remedy of the damages sustained from having my rights violated, but have no power to protect my rights from being violated in the first place.

This is the first time I’m reading the comments here. I had thought most listeners were sympathetic to libertarian ideas, but my goodness, this is a lot of defence and advocacy of heavy government intervention and violation of individual rights and freedoms. I’m shocked.

Al McCabe
Aug 30 2020 at 2:23pm

You should consult a lawyer before you make a life or death decision based on TV show plots.

If the police order you to do something, you need to do it or perhaps face immediate terrible consequences.  If the police order is illegal, then your remedy is to sue later and get damages.

Much of the legal issue of whether a police order is valid is probably not even apparent to you in the moment, such as whether a disaster has been declared, whether a gathering is declared a riot, etc., which can vastly increase police powers.

Aug 29 2020 at 8:54am

Really interesting. I think the point that’s missed is that no officer knows if they are going to be one of those 50 officers killed each year. Sort of a Taleb argument that they don’t take chances because the consequence of the extreme event is death.

On another note, how many officers are shot, but don’t die? What is the denominator in those 50 deaths? The same argument is made for the he victims of police shootings, but I didn’t catch this with relation to police.

Al McCabe
Aug 29 2020 at 10:31pm

Very poor analysis in this discussion.  I guess if you give a professor a piece of paper with numbers on it, they think they become an expert.  Rather than talk raw numbers, why didn’t the conversation look at REAL INCIDENTS.  The hypothesis is that there are 3 bad police killings per day, yet I dare you to go find one specific one for analysis.   All those “famous” killings are much more complicated than the 20-second one-sided edited video suggests, right?

Just a few short points that others haven’t dwelled on as much.

 All police shootings are heavily scrutinized, by other law enforcement, by courts, by victim families, by money-seeking plaintiff lawyers, by the local press, by the regional press, by the national press, etc.  The claim of academia that the data isn’t collected for their easy use is silly.
You have to address “suicide by cop” if you are going to talk about police killings.
If you are going to have 5 foot 2, 120-pound female police officers, then they have to use firearms very quickly in a fight.  Do you want many policewomen?  Do you want very high physical fighting requirements for all law enforcement officers?
If you are going to apply gross analysis, then you need to also include the violent killing rate of domestic incidents and those in specific subgroups that nobody wants to talk about.

Amy Bronters
Aug 29 2020 at 10:45pm

If you want to use a specific situation to discuss, you can use the very widely reported case of the shooting of Michael Brown by officer Darrel Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.  That shooting spawned the “BLM” movement and was investigated by more FBI agents than the JFK assassination, almost all of them black.

The final report, based on FBI interviews of over 100 witnesses, is very different than the “facts” reported in the news at the time.  The 86 page report of the Department of Justice, prepared under a black Attorney General and a black President, is available at:

Aug 30 2020 at 11:28am

There already exists an intricate system to adjudicate whether a police shooting was justified. The author seemed to ignore this obvious fact by insisting no such process exists.

As we have seen in many of the high profile, recent police shootings that were widely regarded as unjustified, those officers were themselves charged with a crime. In each such case, all of the relevant evidence is examined by a jury of impartial citizens (a slightly more objective group than the Washington Post).

If you want to know how many police shootings are unjustified, just look to the conviction rate of police officers for said shootings. One analysis found, “From 2005-2018, research shows that only 35 officers have been convicted of a crime related to an on-duty fatal shooting.”

Dr. Duru
Aug 31 2020 at 1:26am

Thanks for having this timely discussion. Seems like a good starting point for working on real solutions.

I was left wondering about NYC’s ability to greatly reduce civilian fatalities. What is it that NYC did that other police departments are finding hard to replicate? What specifically can be applied from NYC’s experience? I was quite stunned (and pleased) to hear the dramatic drop because I remember growing up constantly hearing about civilians, armed and unarmed, dying from police shootings in NYC.

How about a podcast on the 2nd amendment and its application in modern-day America? I do not mean a discussion that rehashes the endless legalistic debates. But what are the economic impacts of the 2nd amendment? For example, Zimring seems to imply that unnecessary civilian deaths are an almost natural outcome of the extremely high prevalence of guns in America. Ditto on the higher police fatality rates compared to countries like France and Germany. Can we debate about whether these costs are still worth bearing? Are the costs even irrelevant to the rights? Etc…? Is there some kind of irony going on where the state is compelled to arm itself against a well-armed citizenry?

Aug 31 2020 at 12:28pm

I wish Econtalk would stick to facts with a high degree of reliability. The talk about the Michael Brown shooting is just mythology based on the initial “news” reports. The facts have been compiled by a huge number of FBI agents sent to Ferguson by President Obama and published by the Department of Justice.

The FACTS of the Michael Brown shooting are very different than the mythology. So why is EconTalk spreading the mythology and not the FACTS. The FACT is that the shooting was HEAVILY scrutinized by the hundreds of outside people and NO CHARGES were even possible against the police officer.

The other shootings mentioned have similar differences between mythology and facts. Please deal with FACTs. The reason the author doesn’t deal in facts maybe because he can’t find the facts he relies on for his hypothesis in the real world.

Randy Riggins
Aug 31 2020 at 1:02pm

Did it ever occur to either of you, that if the citizens being arrested would simply follow the police instructions that nobody would get shot. The police and/or the people being arrested. Neither of you brought up that possibility as if it is not even possible. Russ, you are a very smart man and I am disappointed that you let Mr. Zimring get away with that.

Please do better.



William Bromberg
Aug 31 2020 at 5:50pm

Least economic analysis purporting to be data based I’ve ever heard on econtalk.

The single biggest question is not “how rare is it for a cop to die/have serious injury from a knife or blunt object WHEN THE COP HAS A GUN” it’s “how likely is it when he doesn’t”.

It’s obvious that gun beats knife most of the time, but taser or baton (and the baton is also potentially lethal) v knife is different. Seen v. unseen strikes yet again.

Aug 31 2020 at 7:12pm

I thought the guest was terrific. These are tough subjects and all sides need representation.

My guess is this has less to do with race and more to do with marginalized communities. Stop and frisk was not designed for the Upper West Side. More crime takes place in marginalized communities, which makes police more vigilant when responding to 911 calls. Towns want as much ticket revenue as possible. States want to deter crime with harsh penalties, which doesn’t work. And what about suicide by cop?

And yet, the ultimate solution will probably come from the police themselves. It will be some technology that temporarily incapacitates suspects without lethal force. It will be used often and early in confrontations. We need this technology as soon as possible. Officers can’t take much more of the yelling and pure hatred. They are taking all the blame for every failing in every government office.

Sep 2 2020 at 12:48am

It strikes me that Professor Z and most of his ideological allies would be very much OK with a couple dozen more dead police every year, provided the civilian number drops, be they misunderstood unicorn cases or cop killers.

And this would cause me caution if I were considering becoming a cop.

If I get smoked by a bad guy, I get a 60-second blurb on local news and a plaque at the local precinct; otherwise, I never get to see my kids again and I am forgotten forever in 18 months (perhaps it brings the Professor Zs out there some indiscernibly small incremental pleasure to know I am dead rather than a civilian).

If I shoot first and smoke the bad guy, I might get doxxed by social media, journalists cut together iPhone clips in misleading and incriminating ways and claim to know my ulterior motives, I go on leave and maybe never work again, maybe there are national riots, I might never be safe again, and oceans of digital ink are spilled honoring the deceased (whether they had a shred of honor or not). And all I was trying to do is protect other citizens as part of my job.

Who would sign up to be part of that lose-lose?

[Comment edited with commenter’s agreement.–Econlib Ed.]

Harvey H Cody
Sep 6 2020 at 12:12pm

As Alex validly mentioned above, Professor Zimring would have a completely different view of the problem if he understood Taleb’s descriptions of ergodicity. Applying normal probabilities to life and death risks is not scientific.

The idea of letting the suspected felon who flashes a knife go if brutality would be required to arrest him on the spot (with the idea that he can be found later) is equally unrealistic. Why would he not flash a gun or knife the next time the cops show up?

Should the economics of policing be totally ignored. If the police must defer apprehension every time the suspect indicates that brutality will be required in order to arrest him, how many times must they come back before they catch him napping (assuming he cannot guard against being caught napping)? Once word gets out that all one must do is flash a knife to avoid being taken downtown, the cost of Professor Zimring’s plan will skyrocket.
With policing being so hamstrung, will police forces be able to attract enough applicants to fill all the additional police needed to do all the pointless going to and fro?

If remaining free is becomes so cheap and easy while the booty remains so plentiful, why wouldn’t the number of criminals and crime increase dramatically?

How much mayhem will the felon commit between their multiple encounters for each crime they commit?
These considerations appeared to be no part of Professor Zimring’s analysis.

Sep 7 2020 at 2:29am

I think the comments here need to appear under every econtalk episode. Too often I see people talk about freedom, and decry things like zoning laws or barber licenses as horrible tyranny.

But when it comes to almost 1000 people each year being killed by agents of the state, with no recourse whatsoever avaliable and so many more seriously hurt – everybody in the comments is 100% for it. Not even the fact that there are unions (gasp!) protecting people who killed other people and were fired because of it is a problem to this crowd.

Something to remember next time…

Comments are closed.


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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: June 23rd, 2020.]

Russ Roberts: Today is June 23rd, 2020. And, my guest is Franklin Zimring, the William G. Simon Professor of Law and the Faculty Director of Criminal Justice Studies at the law school at the University of California, Berkeley. He's the author of numerous books, including When Police Kill, which is the subject of today's conversation. Frank, welcome to EconTalk.

Franklin Zimring: Well, thank you for having me.

Russ Roberts: If all goes well, there should be a video of this conversation via YouTube. I encourage you to go to YouTube and search for EconTalk and subscribe.


Russ Roberts: Frank, your book was published in 2017. A lot has happened since then, much of it tragic. But, I want to start with where your book starts, which is, you talk about the fact that there are two ways that the state takes the lives of the people here. One is through capital punishment, the execution of criminals who have been convicted of crimes. The other is through the actions of police officers. And, until 2014, there was an enormous amount of attention focused on the death penalty and very little on the deaths from police action. Why was that the case before 2014?

Franklin Zimring: Well, it's a very simple political fact that what happens with executions and execution policy state by state is that we aggregate it. But, the fact that we have 18,000 different police departments and that the police department is the operational unit to focus on meant that each police killing happened as a separate news event. And, we never added them up. So, what happens is that you have 20 to 40 executions in the United States--

Russ Roberts: Per year--

Franklin Zimring: Yes; but that seems like an enormity. Whereas if you keep the 1000-1100 police killings a year that happen, each as a separate event and treat it as unique, you never add it up and you don't realize that we have a steady and collective and extremely large governmental use of lethal force which doesn't get aggregated.

Russ Roberts: And, there were attempts to aggregate that; there still are attempts to aggregate it. The first part of your book describes the different choices that people have made in attempting to summarize this data.

And, of course, the official numbers actually appear to be too low by about half. Two newspapers, The Washington Post and the British paper, The Guardian, get a number closer to the 1000 or 1100 that you talk about.

Russ Roberts: Of course those deaths, those 1100, a thousand or so, or 1100 include any case where a person died at the hands of police. It includes self-defense; it includes shooting somebody in the back; and it tragically, of course, as well includes cases like George Floyd, where a gun was not used, but a person dies as a result of a police action. So, there's a huge variety of ways that people die at the hands of police, correct?

Franklin Zimring: There's a very large variety, but there are also clusters and concentrations, which are extremely important. There are about 1,120 deaths in police custody or police interaction each year, but almost exactly 1000 of those are fatal shootings. And, so, that cluster is 90% of the events. And, it's that 90% where the fatal force used by police, the exercise of control, is an intention to wound with a lethal instrument.

So, it's probably best to keep that 90% as a singular and aggregate phenomenon.

And, then the question is: How many of those are--well, justified is one way to divide them, and then non-justified. But that requires a particular kind of fact finding.

The best way to divide that thousand shooting deaths is into the necessary--and then define what I mean by necessary--and the unnecessary. And, that division is almost 50/50.

There is only one kind of weapon assault which creates a large risk of life to police officers. And, the overwhelming majority of all of the events that provoke shootings are assaults against police officers. In 57% of those cases--and, this is again using that Washington Post and Guardian aggregation--in 57% of those cases, the police say a gun was present. In very few of those cases is a gun fired at a police officer. But, there's supposed to be a gun there in 57% of the cases, somewhere, and therefore some kind of a firearms threat.

Now, the reason to separately analyze those cases is very simple. 97.5% of all fatalities of police from assault in the six years that we aggregate them using FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] statistics are with guns.

So, that the only significant and recurrent threat to an officer's life is with the firearm.

Now, that's important because police officers have a wide variety of other kinds of force that they can exercise. They can call for more help. They can use a variety of weapons that are usually non-lethal--tasers, mechanisms to magnify the effectiveness of hand-to-hand combat.

So, killing force is only necessary when police lives are at meaningful risk.

Now, that means that more than 400 of the events that police say is a justification for the shooting death involve weapons that don't put police at significant death risk.

They are, 'He had a blade and was showing it.' They are non-injury events. They are what are called personal force.

But, that, in a country of 300 million people with 650,000 police is talking about a very, very tiny death risk in any attack or cumulatively over the year. It's much more dangerous to drive around the city. It's much more dangerous. That 96[?]%--


Russ Roberts: As you point out, that the good news is that the risk of death in the line of duty for a police officer has fallen dramatically over the last few decades for a lot of reasons, but mainly because of Kevlar--body armor and body protection. A knife is not nearly as dangerous as it was before Kevlar. A bullet isn't either.

Franklin Zimring: No, it was never dangerous for police. It was never life-endangering for police. There are--the infrequency of fatal knife assaults antedates the Kevlar circumstances, very substantially.

Russ Roberts: Well, I don't mean to-- I take the point. I'm in agreement that there appears to be hundreds of deaths that are avoidable, that don't require fatal action on the part of the police.

However, it's also the case that perhaps one of the reasons that knives never lead to the deaths of the police is because they shoot the people who have them. So that--it depends what the distance is.

Franklin Zimring: Well, except for the fact that it's almost--

Russ Roberts: It depends what the distance is.

Franklin Zimring: Yeah. It also is--No, it's more than a hundred-fold difference. The--remember, it isn't a knife attack that we're talking about.

Russ Roberts: Correct, yeah.

Franklin Zimring: It is, 'He had,' or, 'I thought he had a bladed weapon.' And, so, it is a display, not an assault. And, the fatality risk was never significant.

There are several things. It's illegal, obviously, to brandish a blade at a police officer. It's illegal to run away from a police officer. It's illegal to try and bolt away from an arrest. So that there are many situations which justify force. They just don't justify killing.

Russ Roberts: Right.


Russ Roberts: So, as you point out, one of the things I learned from your book, which I learned a great deal, one of the things I learned is that in 1985, the Supreme Court ruled that you can't use deadly force against someone fleeing from the scene. Which had a big effect. But, not big enough in that it still is the case that a thousand people die a year at the hands of police.

Before we get into the possibilities for reducing that number, I was surprised at how many times deaths occur in response to a call related to domestic violence. Is that an accurate summary of one of the findings of the book?

Franklin Zimring: Absolutely.

Russ Roberts: A non-trivial number of people are shot by police who are responding to a call of domestic violence. And, I assume that could be from the spouse, or it could be from neighbors hearing screaming or something. We don't know the circumstances.

Franklin Zimring: That's right. But, the ways in which--and, I think the police do an accurate job here--the way in which the category is described is not as Domestic Assaults, although families and intimates are involved. But, the notion is: the entire of personal conflicts where an individual has a weapon and uses that weapon in a manner that is regarded by the people that call the police as either threatening others or threatening themselves.

Russ Roberts: Sure.

Franklin Zimring: The dispute category is, by itself, a quarter of all situations that provoke killings by police.

And, that's nothing new. That is the chronic condition. And, one of the reasons for that is that most police calls are concentrated in non-offending behavior. Police are the first line of intervention whenever there is something problematic and potentially threatening that citizens want to respond. If you don't call the cops, who do you call?


Russ Roberts: So, one of the challenges I think in today's discussion or conversation in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd is the question of: Are police being asked to do things they're not very good at, and that often lead to violence, death? And, of course, just as a footnote, we're not only interested in death. We are interested in death. But, harassment, fear on the streets in certain communities is also part of the concerns that are being voiced right now.

Russ Roberts: So, a lot of people have suggested, 'You know, police don't make very good social workers.' Showing up at a marital argument that's escalating into violence at 2:00 in the morning is not their strong suit. Do you think that's an important part of where police actions go wrong?

Franklin Zimring: Well, I think that the answer to that is yes and no, because let's back up. There are lots of things in domestic conflict resolution that police may not be wonderful at.

But, police bring a capacity to use force, and to respond, that is very important when the weaker of two people in a conflict--we can take the domestic assault as the typical one--wants to call for help. If you call a social worker, it had better be a pretty strong social worker.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, no, that's one of the challenges as we try to think of how to remake either police, or their actions, or the scope of their activities, is that usually most of us call the police--I've done it a handful of times in my life, a small handful, thank God. But, most of us call the police when we're afraid for our lives, or our property in some way, or someone else's property or lives.

So, it is a inherently often dangerous situation.

And, as you point out, the United States has a much higher rate of police killing than in other countries. And, part of it is the inevitable result of 60 million handguns in the hands of American citizens, American people.

Franklin Zimring: Yeah. I mean, the central finding in the book, which is--what is it that threatens police lives?--is the classic good news, bad news joke. The good news is that only firearms are real risks to police officer lives. The bad news is there are a lot of firearms in the United States. And, it is particularly the concealed ones, the ones that police can't see which are specific and unique threats.

So that, the best that we can do, if we can really reduce the number of killings by police to the numbers which are realistically necessary to protect police lives, we can cut the number of dead citizens in half, and maybe by 75%.

That's the good news. The bad news is that still leaves civilian deaths in the hundreds where there is a realistic threat of guns being used. Guns are the only problem, but they're a major problem.


Russ Roberts: How many police die a year, roughly, in the United States in the line of duty?

Franklin Zimring: 50.

Russ Roberts: Fifty. So, I think it's just important to get that out there.

I think one of the things we've heard in the aftermath of George Lloyd's death is that only a handful of people are killed who are unarmed as if that is the right measure of police killing. It's not. Obviously there are plenty of people who are either armed with a knife, as you say, but don't have a chance to kill anybody, who gets killed.

Franklin Zimring: Or baseball bat, or a blunt object. None of which kill police officers.

Russ Roberts: Presumably some of them have guns, but don't brandish them and just get killed anyway out of fear or whatever.

Franklin Zimring: Or don't have guns, but look like they have guns.

Russ Roberts: Right. Right. Which is--

Franklin Zimring: And sometimes they're radios. Sometimes--you see, the more aggressive you are at the early indications, the more false positives.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. For sure.

Franklin Zimring: Have we ever done a carefully detailed analysis of each and every one of those shooting episodes? Some police departments have and some cities. But, again, you've got 18,000 different police departments. We have no idea what the range is. And that's why it has been very important to start with what newspapers and media have recounted.

Because, as I said to you at the beginning, each shooting by a police department is a single event. It's never aggregated in a policy, scientific way.

And, that's our first big mistake. Somebody should be counting the aggregates, figuring out what the determinants are and drawing the lines between necessary and unnecessary use of force that frequently kills.

Russ Roberts: Of course, reasonable people could disagree about what necessary or unnecessary is. You might imagine the police officers feel differently from non-police officers.

But, I think what's powerful about the book is that it's clear there are cases--and it's not three, unfortunately--where deadly force is used. It might be five police officers killing somebody who is 20 feet away. So, shooting and discharging their weapons to some poor soul who is 20 feet away. So--

Franklin Zimring: And, with a blade.


Russ Roberts: Right. I just want listeners who are wondering about this is that, if you read the book, and there's quite a bit of careful empirical work in the book, and my listeners know that I'm skeptical about a lot of statistical analysis. I hope it doesn't insult you, Frank. But, there's not a lot of statistical analysis in the modern econometric sense. There are a lot of facts.

Now, of course facts are tricky, and a lot of your book is trying to make it clear that just counting, which would be the most basic kind of number we have, how many?

Answering that question, it turns out it's not so straightforward. Once you've got that answer, which you make the case, I think quite plausibly, that the number of people killed by police in America each year is something close to a thousand. Once you have that, then the question is, well, how many of that thousand are avoidable--and, without putting police at risk?

Which is, you very clearly state: Your goal is not to put police at risk.

And, you suggest that it is hundreds of people whose lives could have been saved, whose deaths could have been avoided had a different strategy been used by the officers. And, those of us who've watched the horrible videos over the last six years that have increasingly been available because people have cell phones; and, a thoughtful person then has to wonder how many events happened we didn't have access to visually before the advent of common cell phone use of recording. The average person has to wonder: This could be avoided, and why isn't it? Why isn't it the case that somebody, the tragic death of Eric Garner, George Floyd who were clearly at the time not at risk of harming the police officers involved--their deaths could have been avoided. The puzzle for many of us is, well, why aren't they punished for what seems to be the overuse of lethal force?

Somebody who's shot fleeing, somebody who's shot at a distance by more than one officer, somebody who is shot 15 times by often an officer who--an officer who has got other issues in their record?

Why did these people not get punished?

And, so, the standard, I think, way that many economists, certainly, and casual economists and the public would respond is: Well, obviously there's very little consequence to the misuse of force by police. We need to fix that. If you had to describe the barriers to fixing that, where would you start?

First of all, is it true that officers frequently escape any sanctions or censure for the use of deadly force when it perhaps is not necessary?

Franklin Zimring: Oh, absolutely.

Russ Roberts: And, secondly, why hasn't it changed?

Franklin Zimring: Very simple, in two dimensions.

In the first instance, very few of these killings are situations in which all of the fault is on the individual officer. And, that becomes absolutely important, because if you're talking about the criminal responsibility of the individual officer, it was all his fault. That is a small minority of all the cases and a small minority of the unnecessary killings.

Russ Roberts: Why is that?

Franklin Zimring: That is because the standards that justify the use of deadly force that departments utilize in making evaluations are ambiguous and cover an awful lot of settings where police lives aren't at risk. There are knives. There are baseball bats. There are intensely felt personal force assaults that don't kill police officers, but that do create justification.

So, what that means that if you really want to prevent the 400, at least, killings a year that are unnecessary, you're going to have to find a way to sanction and prevent the killings which are the joint responsibility of systems of police--the police chief, the administrative rules, and police officers.

And, the way you can do that is with big money damages.

If it is the system and the officer who are jointly at fault, they should be jointly sanctioned. You can't put a police department in jail. But, what you can do, is you can create a money-damage incentive that will then produce the miraculous cure for hundreds of unnecessary deaths, which are very simple rules that police departments announce and administer. 'Don't shoot,' rules. 'If the weapon doesn't kill police officers, don't shoot.' 'When that is the weapon that you see, use other kinds of force. Get more help. Or don't make an arrest. But don't kill.' Those are the don't-shoot rules.

The other kind of very simple rules are: Stop shooting rules.

When police officers go through weapons training, they're told, and by God, if you're going to use lethal force, make sure--now, if your life was at consistent risk in all these settings, that might be something that would be discussable. But, when you have an awful lot, probably half or more of these killing situations, where the police officer's life isn't at risk, then the need to quote "make sure and to keep shooting," which dramatically elevates the death rate--one wound inflicted from a police gun, 20.8% death rate. Three wounds, four wounds, five wounds, 15 shots--and all of a sudden death occurs in the majority of cases.

So, Question One is: Was any gun fired necessary?

Question Two is: What are the situations where it is clear that whatever danger to life there was is now over? Is he on the ground? Is he running away? [heh-heh-heh ?] Is he already wounded and unlikely to shoot?

So, you have: Don't shoot rules, and stop shooting rules.

Now, how do you enforce them? The more those rules are clear, the greater the number of unjustified shootings where it will look like the clear fault of the individual officer or group of officers.

Then the system isn't adding to the blame and sharing the blame.

So, the clearer the rules, the easier it will be to assess individual responsibility when the officers shoot and the rules don't allow it.

But the other thing which is clear is that police officers care about promotion. They care about their salaries. They care about their ratings. So, that, once there is an administrative priority to make sense and to save civilian lives, the numbers can go down. There are some police departments that do pretty well these days.

In New York City in the 1970s, citizen deaths from police guns were 70 a year. It's closer to seven or eight now in the most populous city in the United States. Those are not simply rules, but those are the police knowing the priorities.

Russ Roberts: And, as you point out, which I thought was an important insight is that police are protected by the same justice system that protects all of us in the United States. They can use lethal force with more impunity than the average person, but when accused of using lethal force inappropriately, they are subject to the same justice system that we are; which is: we are given a lot of opportunity to prove our innocence, which is a good thing and most of us treasure about the U.S system when at least works in our favor. Here it offends a lot of people when it protects an officer from punishment.

Franklin Zimring: As an individual.

Russ Roberts: Correct.

Franklin Zimring: But, if you have a set of sanctions that can blame the system as well, and that's what financial sanctions can do--

Russ Roberts: Yeah, they care about that--

Franklin Zimring: then you can spread the blame.


Russ Roberts: So, what role do you think unions play? Which is another--you didn't mention it in your book as far as I remember, but unions play a role in protecting officers, obviously, from inappropriate sanctions. But some would suggest they protect officers from appropriate sanctions. And, I think, a lot of the idea of "defunding the police," which can mean a variety of things. But, certainly if we're talking about reforming the police, the unions appear to be something of a barrier to that reform. Do you think that's a fair assessment?

Franklin Zimring: I think that the answer is yes. But, again, the way in which you focus your control mechanism can make a difference there. The closer you are to generating systemic pressure--going after the chief, too--the less important will be the opposition of the police union. There is no Police Chiefs' Union. Well, there is an Association; but, that takes some of the important pressure off. It is still the case that there is an unwillingness by police unions to focus disciplinary attention of any kind to use-of-force policies.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; let's forget killings for the moment. An officer who is--generate a set of complaints for over-zealousness, cruelty, being the equivalent of a rogue officer, but doesn't kill anybody, but gets a series of complaints--that person should be sanctioned by the chief. But, is that possible in the union setting in most American cities right now?

Franklin Zimring: It's difficult but possible. And, again, it's probably easier to create financial and promotional sanctions and to withhold particular benefits than it is to use what are essentially quasi-criminal disciplinary tactics exclusively.

So, the broader the controls and the more administrative it looks, the easier it will be to justify without what is essentially a criminal conviction or a 100%-fault standard, which puts all the fault on the officer and none on the system.


Russ Roberts: In your book, you talk about Philadelphia. And your book was published in 2017, and the last two years you had data for--in Philadelphia, as you point out and an underlying theme of this conversation is that we don't have reliable data across the country--but we do have some reliable data in various cities at various times.

So, Philadelphia had a dramatic drop over the two years before your book came out, or at least in the data that was available when your book came out. Two questions: Did that drop continue to stay low? Did the level, at least, continue to stay low in Philadelphia?

Franklin Zimring: I think so.

Russ Roberts: And, do we know why Philadelphia was able to cut the rate of death in police actions so dramatically?

Franklin Zimring: Well--what we don't have is a set of discreet and highly visible administrative events to focus on and say, 'Yes, on July 15th, here's what the chief said.' But, the message gets around.

The real question there is that when you look at these big drops and you ask, 'Well, have police been markedly less safe under those circumstances?' Evidently not.

Russ Roberts: Because the death rate of police in the line of duty has fallen and stayed low.

Franklin Zimring: Yes. The big fall has been over a long period of time. But the big stay-low has been sustained. And, when departments--let's go back to New York, which has over 40 years of an enormous drop--did that make policing more life-threatening in the city? And, the answer is: Apparently not. So, we do, yeah--

Russ Roberts: So, your claim is--just to make it clear, your claim is that--let me try to restate it. Your claim is that over the last decade or two, maybe a little bit longer, it has become increasingly safe to be a police officer on the job. It has not become increasingly safe to be a potential victim of police action. Whether that's--you have to be careful here. Police don't generally, in America, go out and kill people for fun. There are--we're still talking about criminals, but we're trying to talk about the unnecessary use of lethal force, that that has not--

Franklin Zimring: And, we're not necessarily, by the way, talking about criminals--

Russ Roberts: But, some of them are, for sure--

Franklin Zimring: Remember, if it's a dispute--

Russ Roberts: Yeah; fair enough--

Franklin Zimring: that it's 25%--

Russ Roberts: Fair enough.

Franklin Zimring: Okay.

Russ Roberts: Okay. So, there's--

Franklin Zimring: I would make one amendment to the way in which you described my argument.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, go ahead.

Franklin Zimring: The big drop in the risk of death to police goes back from the mid-1970s to probably the late 1990s or the turn of the new century. What we have done since the dramatic lowering of police risks is maintain them at that low level.

Now, 50 police deaths a year is still, if you want to compare it to France or Germany, many more. And, the reason is, again, all of those guns.

Russ Roberts: Yep.

Franklin Zimring: But, it is a substantial and very consistent increase in police safety from life-threatening assaults, which does not appear to be at significant risk. I don't think that there's anything about police shooting less that will lead to a substantial increase from 50 a year. I wish I could say that we could also anticipate substantial drops from 50 police officers a year--

Russ Roberts: Possible--

Franklin Zimring: But for that, I'm afraid we'd need a different country.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, fair enough. But, I think there's another issue that we haven't talked about. I don't think it's in the book either. So, let me restate--I'm going to try again to summarize your argument. I'll try to be a little bit more succinct. It's gotten safer to be a police officer, and yet police still kill a lot of people in the line of duty that probably could be avoided: where their lives are not at stake and civilians are dying. Now--

Franklin Zimring: That's a completely fair--

Russ Roberts: So, here's the question. If we reduced the use of lethal force by police officers, is it possible that other people would be endangered other than the police? In particular, what role does the potential use of lethal force have in reducing crime? And, let me make it clear here: I'm not suggesting this is about justice or a good thing. But there might be an unintended consequence if we put in the types of 'Don't shoot, no shoot' rules that you're talking about.

So, for example, somebody fleeing from the scene of a crime. You can chase 'em down. If you're not going to shoot him--and you can't--you're either going to have to get some help from other people, or tackle them, or do something else if they're really eager to escape, which they--

Franklin Zimring: Or arrest them later.

Russ Roberts: If you could find them. If you can find them.

Franklin Zimring: No, if you've got--if you've got probable cause, the question is not if you can find them, but when.

No. I think that there is absolutely no clear indication of any significant or measurable crime prevention. And, it would be so unlikely because of the almost complete lack of overlap.

Remember, you've got more dispute settlements--Uncle Floyd is up there with a gun and very unhappy--than you have any kind of cops and robbers situation, too. So that what you would--

Russ Roberts: Yeah: A better way to say it--what you're saying is that most of the deaths that occur in the line of officers discharging their duty is that it's not like they come upon a bank robbery or a mugging. It's simply a dangerous person who is a little bit unpredictable. And, if that person has a gun, we're not surprised that sometimes bad things happen if they brandish the gun. If they don't brandish the gun and they don't have a gun visible, it's sometimes--you're suggesting a lot of those deaths could be avoided at no higher risk to the police.

Franklin Zimring: Oh, yes. Yes. And, those are the situations. And, under those circumstances, to even then peak [peek ?] at general crime rates and suggest that there might be some significant relationship is pretty far-fetched.


Russ Roberts: Well, I'm bringing it up for a couple reasons. One, I know there's some research on it right now, which I'm not on top of, but maybe we'll come back to it here at EconTalk. But, I'm thinking about a city that's gotten a lot of press in the last week or so--the last couple of weeks in the aftermath of George Floyd's death--which is Camden, New Jersey.

So, there were a couple articles, at least--probably more than two, I saw two--extolling Camden for re-imagining its police department, making it more community-based, gentler, nicer. And, they cut the number of deaths that were caused by police dramatically.

So, that's the first two thirds of the article, and it makes you feel great and it gives you hope. And it's--at a time when we're really, a horrible time right now in America over this issue and a horrible time for people who are at risk of being shot by the police--the idea that there's an alternative that's imaginable is very encouraging.

However, as you read your way further down the article, it says, after it's talked about how great the reduction has been in the number of shootings by the police, it says, 'But, of course there are the other numbers.' And, I'm thinking, 'What are the numbers they're talking about?' And, those are: crime.

And, in the city of Camden, at least based on the way I understood the article, other crimes increased. Crimes increased, period.

Now, that might be a trade-off worth making for a thousand reasons, but it's not a free lunch. A gentler police force--obviously there are many ways to interpret that phrase and I understand what you're talking about. You're trying to be unambiguous. It's not necessarily easy to be unambiguous: 'Don't shoot unless, stop shooting when.'

Those are--we could have rules that are somewhat unambiguous, at least on paper. In real life, they are inevitably going to be complicated by adrenaline, fear, circumstance, uncertainty, passion, etc. But--

Franklin Zimring: Well, yeah, I, I'm going to have to step in and make two points--

Russ Roberts: Go for it--

Franklin Zimring: in opposition to any evidence of a clear causal relationship between increased shooting by police and decreases in general crime rates. In the first instance, there has been no persuasive indication or statistical study that decreasing shootings by police increases the number of attacks against police. Now, that's--

Russ Roberts: But, I'm not talking about that, Frank.

Franklin Zimring: Yeah, I know. But, that's exactly where you'd have to look. Because that is at least a situation where there is a clear link between the particular risk and the particular counter-risk.

Russ Roberts: No, I don't think so.

Franklin Zimring: That's what it's supposed to be about.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, let me disagree with you and then you can push back. But, it seems to me, the following: Right now we're at a time where the prestige of the police is not very high. We had a situation of--

Franklin Zimring: Oh, I think that varies from city to city.

Russ Roberts: Fair enough.

But, in the last couple of weeks, there's been an allegation that police stood by as looting occurred. That they--there's some adversarial aspects of policing that I think need desperately to be repaired if we can figure this out. I don't know if we can. And it will be city by city. There are some national things we can do. You talk about some in the book, such as data gathering, which are extremely important. There's some justice department, Department of Justice issues.

But, my point is the following:

One way to reduce police shootings is to reduce the level of policing. And, that's a challenge. Now, I'm trying to make a contrast. Maybe it's not a fair one. I'm trying to make a contrast between the police being less vigilant, which I can understand a lot of people, both being in favor of that, that they're too vigilant right now, they're too active.

So, what we need to do is the police need to pull back. When you do that, you're going to get less killings by the police. But you might get more crime. I assume you probably would. So, that's what I think is the issue.

Franklin Zimring: Okay. I have to throw some books at you here.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, go ahead.

Franklin Zimring: And, of course they're books I wrote. In 2012, I wrote a book called The City That Became Safe. And, it's about New York policing and its effects. And, remember that New York used to shoot 70 people a year, but by the turn of the century it was only shooting seven or eight or nine.

Russ Roberts: That's a big improvement.

Franklin Zimring: But, it was doing an awful lot of policing.

And, it turns out that intensity of policing is a completely different phenomenon. And, it was one that was very effective in New York.

The point I was making is that if you thought there was a real causal impact, plus or minus, on specific risk of shootings by police, you would look for it in the circumstances which the police would usually use for the justification.

Those are in a tiny minority of fatalities. Either crime in process or make an arrest. They are overwhelmingly assaults against police.

That makes sense.

But, then it suggests that what you want to see if there's any real preventive effect of police shootings is on the primary purpose of police shooting. And, there, I have not seen any decent statistical evidence.

Now I've got to go further than that.

Russ Roberts: That's an excellent point. You're saying that if police kill to defend themselves, then reducing how much they kill should make them less dangerous--excuse me--should put them in more danger. The fact that it doesn't suggests that we could reduce the civilian deaths without endangering the police.

I guess the question is whether there's some other spillover effects and how that is administered.

Franklin Zimring: Yeah, but that would be almost impossible to measure.

And, here I've got to throw--the oldest book I'll throw at you, at. It's called Deterrence: Legal Threat in Crime Control. And, I don't think you were out of short pants when it was published.

Russ Roberts: When was that? What year was that?

Franklin Zimring: 1972.

Russ Roberts: Well, I appreciate the compliment. I was 18, but go ahead. I was out of short pants, but occasionally wore them in the summer.

Franklin Zimring: Okay.

No, but look, that's--there are all kinds of--you know, you paid me the compliment of saying that the book that we're discussing, When Police Kill, is full of facts, but not regression equations.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, which I like.

Franklin Zimring: There's a reason for that. And, that is, that the assumptions of causality that have to be embedded in those kinds of statistical attempts to tease out prevention are pretty tricky.


Russ Roberts: And, as you point out, we don't have much data on the things we might want to have data on.

You also point out, by the way, you use a--what use what used to be cutting edge but now it might be called primitive--you use what's called 'cross tabulation' or 'cross tabs' to show that there's variation that makes sense, that we could learn something from.

And, one of the things we haven't talked about is that crime in the United States has fallen partly simply because the population has gotten older. Young people are more prone to commit crime than older people.

And, so, there are changes that aren't due to changes in police strategy, aren't due to changes of deterrence, aren't due to changes in policy, but are just demographic in nature.

One thing we didn't get to talk about--we're almost out of time--2014 was a, when you wrote your book--was a watershed.

2014 was--Michael Brown died in Ferguson. Eric Garner died in Staten Island. Eric Garner was--died of a variety of things, but he was not shot.

Franklin Zimring: No, it was almost the fraternal twin of the Minneapolis situation--

Russ Roberts: Of George Floyd, yeah. Correct.

And, we have Freddie Gray dying in police custody in April, 2015.

We have Colin Kaepernick in 2016 calling attention to these issues as a football player and kneeling during the National Anthem.

And yet despite all--so that obviously changed--that sequence and the fact that these were, most of them were able to be seen visually, outraged--and there were more--but, they outraged a lot of people. And we understand that's part of the reason why things changed and whether people cared about this.

What fascinates me is that the death of George Floyd seems to be a different watershed, obviously in the response. It isn't just, 'Oh, here's another one. Here's an officer--'. Part of it's the length, the tragic length of time that this person, poor person, was under the knee of the officer. The fact that it was visual, again, obviously it had a huge impact.

But, everything seems up for grabs now in a way that it wasn't, despite the outrage after Ferguson, after Eric Garner.

And, I'm curious: What are your thoughts about where we're headed? Because your book, written in the calm of 2017, is a, pardon the term, a wonky book. It's full of policy suggestions about how we gather data and what the Federal Government might do, and monitoring police departments, and so on.

Now we're in a world where people are saying we should get rid of the police in certain settings, or change their role, or cut their funding in half.

As a libertarian classical liberal, my general thought is that I want the police doing less of the things that--I'd wished they weren't fighting the drug war. I think that's a huge part of the corruption of the police. I don't like the idea of certain levels of immunity. I don't like the union power to protect certain officers.

But, we're at a point now where those are considered, like--again, I used to be somewhat radical, but now I'm not radical at all. I'm a little conservative. Where do you think we're going?

Franklin Zimring: Well, I think that there are two enormously important questions to consider that are very different questions.

One of them is the nature, intensity, and budgeting of municipal policing in the United States. That's an important question.

Russ Roberts: Their budgets are quite large.

Franklin Zimring: I know.

And, it looks like there are a mass of these pretty fundamental aspects of the current governance of policing that are at risk.

And, then there's the question of police use of lethal force.

Now, I'm going to tell you my prejudice. I don't think that the very important but very specific and very soluble problem of police use of lethal force is a good, general organizing principle to take on these other much more pervasive kinds of policing changes, so that--

Russ Roberts: The harassing of young black men, all kinds of issues that are troubling--

Franklin Zimring: There are all kinds of issues of excessive force. There are all kinds of issues, also, of the assumptions that are made about how to use police power.

And, those are very important conversations to have. But those are conversations that we can have after we've solved the very specific and very soluble problem.

Look: Nobody is in love with the New York police force. I'm not. But, a New York police force that kills eight or nine people instead of 70 is a much better urban police force in a way which can [can't ?] be separated from these larger and profoundly important but very difficult questions of organizational change and focus.


Russ Roberts: And, as you point out, and I think it seems to be forgotten in this particular historical moment: For the same reason, we don't have a national database, a reliable national database of people killed by the police. And, that's because--for one reason: One of the reasons that is, this is a necessary reason, not sufficient. We could overcome this. But: Police is a local function. The buck should stop somewhere. I would have it stop at the police chief's desk and then the mayor's desk.

And, then for some reason in this current moment, it's stopping at the country's desk, which I don't think is productive, personally. But, it has advantages. We do need to think--I think it has forced all of us to think a lot more carefully about race, and I hope productively about race in general.

But, your point is that in terms of governance about police killing, which would be a huge improvement, that's got to be done one police department at a time. Certainly there is hope that that could happen now. It's too late for lots of people, but better late than never.

Franklin Zimring: It is also something that there is national policy--sophisticated policy--that can provoke.

Qualified immunity rules have to change. States as well as the Federal Government have to create private damage actions and have to create really effective measures of monetary damage. And have to make sure that police departments can't simply make that a small-line item on the budget. If unjustified killings are an administrative wound to police in the United States, they're going to fix the problem.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. The flip side of that is civil asset forfeiture, which is a way police can make money. And, I think your point--it's not very glamorous, Frank, so I don't see it carrying the day right this minute, but it might carry the day down the road--is that if you hit them in the wallet, it will get their attention.

That is a way to induce a little bit more, perhaps, governance and accountability, which is really a lot of what we're talking about today.

My guest today has been Frank Zimring. His book is When Police Kill. Frank, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Franklin Zimring: Well, thank you for having me.