With 45 Anchorage police shootings in two decades, researchers crunch the numbers

casey.grove@adn.comDecember 11, 2013 

For the first time ever, crime researchers have taken a close look at Anchorage police shootings over a 20-year period in a study commissioned by the Anchorage Police Department and released to the public Wednesday.

The results of the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center study showed Anchorage police officers fired their guns on 45 occasions in the line of duty from January 1993 to mid-May 2013. Researchers had access to the investigation reports on police shootings, which are written by officers and include officer and witness interviews, lists of evidence gathered at the shooting scenes, and, in some cases, transcripts of radio traffic and dispatcher communications, according to the study.

The research cost the city $8,000, Police Chief Mark Mew said. It took somewhere between 150 and 200 hours to compile, according to the study's author, Justice Center professor Troy Payne.

Among the findings:

• In the period studied, officers never fired on a person who was unarmed or not using a vehicle as a weapon.

• The most common time for a police shooting to happen was in the early morning hours of a weekday.

• Officers fired three or fewer shots in about half of the cases.

• The majority of the shootings happened north of Tudor Road and on or near a main thoroughfare.

• While white men were the most common racial group to get shot at, Pacific Islanders and African-Americans were involved in disproportionately more incidents.

Tied for the most police shootings in a year are 2012 and 2013 with five each, according to Anchorage police. Two of the shootings in 2012 were fatal, and three suspects shot by police have died in 2013.

And while there have clearly been more police shootings in recent years, the low numbers -- an average of just more than two per year -- meant the researchers were unable to show whether there was statistically relevant increase or decrease over the years, Payne said.

"It's sort of all over the place. Which is what we would expect with a rare phenomenon," he said while answering questions from reporters Wednesday at UAA. "When you're talking about something that occurs between zero times and five times per year, there's going to be some fluctuation in that, and there's just not enough variability to have consistent trends."

In other words, a difference of one or two shootings from one year to the next makes for a large increase statistically, but it does not prove there is a trend, Payne said.

That police shootings are relatively rare is generally seen as a good thing, Payne said.

"I'm very happy that the Anchorage Police Department engages in so few of these incidents," he said. "It's good for them and good for the community. But as a data analyst and a social scientist, I'd prefer a lot more data."

For example, it remains unclear how many of the thousands of high-risk calls officers respond to each year could have resulted in a shooting and did not, Payne said. Anecdotally, Payne and Mew said there likely could have been more. Payne called the study "a story of restraint" by Anchorage police.

Still, Payne and Mew acknowledged that police shootings have been a controversial topic in Anchorage recently.

There was heated dialogue among residents, police officials and city policymakers following the fatal June 2012 shooting of 26-year-old Shane Tasi, who approached an officer while waving a broom handle, and the shooting less than a month later of 59-year-old Harry Smith, who brandished a BB gun and was also killed.

Mew has said that the kind of behavior that causes police to use force has become more frequent. But the study released Wednesday did not aim to explain why police shootings happen, and instead was focused on describing the incidents to help citizens, officers and police brass understand them better, Mew and Payne said.

"It's a fascinating report," Mew said. "We knew that the kind of people we go up against when things go bad, they're bad folks doing bad things. They're armed. They're aggressive. They're violent. We know that in our guts, but to see the number up here and to realize that in all those shootings, everybody had a weapon, virtually everybody did something with it to provoke the shooting."

The goal is to make Anchorage less violent, though, Mew said. Future research will likely investigate the things that trigger a police shooting, and the police chief said he has asked officers to bring him examples of situations where they felt justified in firing their weapon but chose not to do so. The "stack" of reports they have already gathered is part of the basis for a future study, Mew said.

As part of the effort to keep officers and Anchorage residents safe, the police department has changed its policy on using lethal force during situations in which a person drives a vehicle at or near an officer. In 40 percent of the police shootings included in the study, a suspect used a vehicle as a weapon, according to the study. The new tactics are designed to keep officers protected and out of harm's way, and they have been instructed not to shoot suspects using vehicles as weapons, if the vehicle is the only weapon involved, Mew said.

"No matter what those numbers are, we want to bring them down. I'd like to have no shootings," he said. "I don't know that we'll ever get to a place where police never shoot anybody, ever, for 20 years. But I'd like to have more zeroes, ones and twos, and less fours and fives."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4343. Twitter updates: twitter.com/kcgrove.

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