11 Years of Police Gunfire, in Painstaking Detail
New York City police officers fire
their weapons far less often than they did a decade ago, a statistic that
has dropped along with the crime rate. But when they do fire, even at an
armed suspect, there is often no one returning fire at the officers.
Officers hit their targets roughly 34 percent of the time.
When they fire at dogs, roughly 55 percent
of shots hit home. Most of their targets are pit bulls, with a smattering of
Rottweilers and German shepherds.
Officers’ guns go off unintentionally or by
accident for a variety of reasons: wrestling with suspects, cleaning the
weapons, leaning on holsters — even once, in 1996, when a gun was put in an
oven for safekeeping.
While the drop in police shootings was
already clear, the details were among the myriad facts included in 11 years’
worth of annual New York Police Department firearms-discharge reports that
were, without fanfare, handed over to the City Council this week and earlier
New York Civil Liberties Union.
Both groups have been examining the
department’s methods of stopping and arresting suspects, sometimes for
possession of illegal guns.
The reports cover the years 1996 to 2006,
and are used as a training tool and to help officials develop “lesson
“Patterns and possible hazards are
identified” from the statistics, the report adds.
Over all, the numbers show that the
department’s use of deadly force has decreased along with the city’s
historic drop in crime, and the drop in threats against police officers.
Picked apart closely, the reports provide a
remarkable portrait of how the nation’s largest police force, with 36,000
officers, uses its guns. Every shot, from gunfight to accident to suicide,
both on and off-duty, is accounted for.
The findings include:
|The number of bullets fired by officers dropped to 540 in 2006 from
1,292 in 1996 — the first year that the city’s housing, transit and
regular patrol forces were merged — with a few years of even lower
numbers in between. Police officers opened fire 60 times at people in
2006, down from 147 in 1996.|
|The police fatally shot 13 people in 2006, compared with 30 people a
|In 77 percent of all shootings since 1998 when civilians were the
targets, police officers were not fired upon, although in some of those
cases, the suspects were acting violently: displaying a gun or pointing
it at officers, firing at civilians, stabbing or beating someone or
hitting officers with autos, the police said. No one fired at officers
in two notable cases — the 1999 shooting of
Amadou Diallo and the 2006 shooting of
Sean Bell. |
|In such shootings, the total number of shots fired in each situation
edged up to 4.7 in 2006. However, the figure is skewed by the 50 shots
fired in the Bell case. Excluding that case, the average would be 3.6
|The average number of bullets fired by each officer involved in a
shooting remained about the same over those 11 years even with a switch
to guns that hold more bullets — as did officers’ accuracy, roughly 34
percent. This figure is known in police parlance as the “hit ratio.”
“The data shows that the
New York City Police Department is the most restrained in the country,”
said Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman. “What these reports
don’t show are the thousands of incidents where police were confronted with
armed criminals, and they did not return fire.”
John C. Cerar, a retired deputy inspector
who was the commander of the Police Department’s firearms training section
from 1985 to 1994, said the accuracy rate is comparable to that of many
other major police departments. In some cases, it is better.
In Los Angeles, which has 9,699 officers,
the police fired 283 rounds in 2006, hitting their target 77 times, for a
hit ratio of 27 percent, said Officer Ana Aguirre, a spokeswoman. Last year,
they fired 264 rounds, hitting 76 times, for a 29 percent hit ratio, she
So far this year the hit ratio in Los
Angeles is 31 percent, with 74 of 237 bullets fired by officers hitting the
In the New York reports, the hit ratio of
officers who committed suicide with a firearm — and, therefore, hit their
target 100 percent of the time — is included when the overall average is
calculated, bringing it up.
Forty-six police officers committed suicide
in the 11 years from 1996 through 2006, an average of four a year. The
highest number came in 2003, when seven officers committed suicide.
Inspector Cerar credited the department for
studying its shootings.
“Everything is down, the number of shots
fired by officers is down, the number of subjects that we shot is way down,”
said Inspector Cerar. “The number of total times when a police officer fires
his weapon is down. Statistically, anecdotally, in any way you put it, the
New York City Police Department is not a cowboy department.”
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “we are human
beings who do make mistakes. We make them. There were mistakes in the Diallo and
Bell shootings. But that doesn’t make the department murderous.”
He added: “We have to
make split-second life-and-death decisions and sometimes we make the wrong
As the numbers have changed, so have the
reports that have categorized and collected them. Inspector Cerar said that
firearms statistics were first seriously compiled by the department beginning in
There is a marked shift in the way the data is
presented, beginning in 1998. For instance, the reports in 1996 and 1997 include
the race of the officer and the person who was shot, facts that do not appear in
the 1998 report.
The 1996 and 1997 reports said that 89.4
percent of those shot by the police were black or Hispanic. The racial
information has not been included since then.
Testifying before the City Council’s Public
Safety Committee on Monday, Deputy Chief John P. Gerrish downplayed how much
understanding could come from releasing details on race.
“Every firearms discharge must be judged in
light of the unique circumstances in which it occurs, and any conclusion drawn
from the purely demographic data involved is fatally flawed,” he said.
The individual reports also used to contain
information on civilian bystanders unintentionally shot and killed or injured by
the police, but that, too, disappeared. In 1996, no civilians were killed by
police but five were injured, including one hit by a ricochet.
While officers hit their targets about a third
of the time over all, far fewer bullets generally found their mark during
gunfights. In 1999, only 13 percent of bullets fired during a gunfight were
By contrast, in 2006, 30 percent of the shots
fired during gunfights were hits, an unusually high percentage. That year, a
total of 19 officers fired their weapons in 13 separate gunfights.
The 2006 report made it clear that even when
officers did all the firing, they often faced a threat. In that year, in 47
shootings when only officers fired, a gun was pointed at them in 26 instances,
and in 21 others “subjects were armed with weapons other than firearms.”
A parenthetical note breaks those 21 down: 6
cutting instruments, 6 motor vehicles, 4 miscellaneous weapons. Five others used
“physical force/furtive movement,” the report said.
Christopher T. Dunn, the associate legal
director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that he considered the five
cases citing “physical force/furtive movement” as the police shooting at an
unarmed person. He said he counted about five similar cases in every year since
“That the number of shooting incidents is down
since 1996 is good for everyone,” Mr. Dunn said. “At the same time, the
likelihood that nearly everyone being shot at is black or Latino, and the fact
that in most incidents only the police are shooting, raise serious concerns that
were highlighted by the Bell and Diallo shootings.”
A year after the Bell shooting, the civil
liberties group filed a request under the freedom of information law seeking the
department’s annual discharge reports, as well as documents on the race of
everyone the police fired upon. The department turned over the discharge reports
in February, but denied the other request last month.
The civil liberties group said it wanted the
data to better understand the role of race in police shootings, not as
information to back up any lawsuit.
The report used to be called the “Firearms
Discharge Assault Report.” In 1996, it noted that 76 officers were fired upon,
in 42 shootings, and did not return fire. In 1999, the title changed to
“Firearms Discharge Report,” and the “assault against officers” category was
Inspector Cerar said that that data should have
continued to be reported.
In the 1996 report, there were 22 reasons given
for the accidental discharges, including: struggling with a perpetrator (13);
tripping, falling, slipping or running (10); unloading or cleaning a gun (7);
removing a weapon from its holster (2); attempting to clear a jam (1); an
officer startled (1). Officer Aguirre, the spokeswoman for the Los Angeles
Police Department, said it produces an annual Officer Involved Shooting Report
that is similar to the one in New York. “We do all the analyses,” she said, “It
is quite extensive.”
She said that parts of the report are not made
public. She said that the chief,
William J. Bratton — a former New York police commissioner — instituted a
policy under which he receives a report within 72 hours of each shooting about
what occurred, with an eye toward making tactical improvements or modifying