The Numbers On Police Encounters

Steven Malanga argues that “significant crime declines have been accompanied by a leveling off and then a reduction in confrontations with the police, as reported by Americans of all races”:

In 1996, [DOJ researchers] produced a preliminary report on police/citizen interactions that broadly estimated that some 45 million Americans had some type of contact with law enforcement during the preceding year. Of those 45 million, the study found, slightly more than half a million reported that the police had used force against them. This initial study, regarded as experimental, wasn’t detailed enough to say much more and was subject to large margins of error, but it led to a series of more comprehensive and in-depth reports, produced from 1999 through 2011.

What’s striking in the progression of these later studies is a steady decrease in the number of people having interactions with the police—from about 45 million in 2002 to 40 million in 2011—or from about 21 percent of the 16-and-older population to about 17 percent.

One clear reason for the decline has been the corresponding drop in crime: the number of people reporting crimes or other problems to the police fell by about 3.6 million from a peak in 2002. More important, perhaps, was that reports of use of force by police also fell, from 664,000 in 2002 to 574,000 in a 2010 report. Those declines occurred across all races. The number of African-Americans reporting that police used force against them fell from 173,000 to 130,000. Among whites, the number has dropped from a peak of 374,000 to 347,000.

But those interactions appear to have gotten more deadly. Douthat spotlights three data points:

The first is the overall crime rate, which (as many, though not enough, people know) has been falling since the 1990s, with homicide rates basically back to pre-1960s crime wave levels. The second is the level of mortal danger faced by policemen in the line of duty, which has been declining steadily since its most recent, 1970s-era peak; according to one estimate, American cops are less likely to be killed in the line of duty than at any point since the 1870s. The third is the rate at which civilians are killed by police officers, which has been … well, there the data gets extremely cloudy, because we don’t have good official statistics on the subject. (Which is why “collect better statistics” reasonably topsa list of plausible reforms.) At the very least, though, we know that the overall number of homicides has dropped over the last decade, and the (again, problematic) statistics we do have show an increase in policemen killing civilians over the same period.

If you assume that a free society needs to strike a balance, needs to grant the police sufficient latitude to keep public order without granting them so much latitude that their powers are too easily abused, then these three numbers provide a decent heuristic for figuring out when the balance has tipped too far in one direction or the other.