Arizona: We Have a Problem

By Evan Haglund
On August 18, 2015

Since the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014 – just over one year ago – shootings of unarmed persons by police have taken the national spotlight.  The South Carolina shooting of Walter Scott as he ran from an officer.  The recent shooting of a college football player outside of Dallas.  The shooting of an unarmed motorist by a Cincinnati police officer.

To date, this spotlight has notably avoided Arizona.  However, Arizona’s avoidance of the limelight may not be well deserved.  In fact, Arizona appears to be among the nation’s leading states in terms pro rata police involved shootings and deaths.

Federal agencies are notorious for tracking the most mundane of statistics – number of unprovoked shark attacks, number of people who attend symphonies, or how many Botox procedures were performed last year.  However, surprisingly, the United States Department of Justice does not track the number of deaths caused by law enforcement officers.  This is hardly a coincidence.

However, there are numerous “unofficial” organizations that have attempted to keep track of police deaths.  Wikipedia contains a page that lists law enforcement shootings and deaths that are reported in the media.  Given that most police killings are reported in the media, and the fact that Wikipedia can be edited by all, this list (at least for recent years) is probably fairly comprehensive.

Based upon a review of this collection of reports, Arizona consistently ranks in the top 10 among states in per capita death rates.  For 2013:

 

RANKING STATE NO. of DEATHS LAW ENFORCEMENT KILLINGS, PER MILLION RESIDENTS
1 Washington 16 2.369
2 New Hampshire 3 2.270
3 Oklahoma 8 2.125
4 Montana 2 2.011
5 New Mexico 4 1.935
6 Nevada 5 1.845
7 Wyoming 1 1.760
8 West Virginia 3 1.613
9 Arizona 10 1.559
10 California 57 1.526

 

For 2014:

 

RANKING STATE NO. of DEATHS LAW ENFORCEMENT KILLINGS, PER MILLION RESIDENTS
1 New Mexico 12 5.805
2 Nevada 15 5.536
3 Oklahoma 18 4.781
4 Arizona 27 4.210
5 Montana 4 4.022
6 South Dakota 3 3.660
7 Utah 10 3.609
8 Delaware 3 3.330
9 West Virginia 6 3.226
10 Kansas 9 3.143

 

For 2015 (January-March):

 

RANKING STATE NO. of DEATHS LAW ENFORCEMENT KILLINGS, PER MILLION RESIDENTS
1 Nebraska 4 2.184
2 Montana 2 2.011
3 Arizona 11 1.715
4 Hawaii 2 1.463
5 Utah 3 1.083
6 Oklahoma 3 0.797
7 Kansas 2 0.698
8 Missouri 4 0.665
9 Iowa 2 0.655
10 Idaho 1 0.636

 

And, finally, for January 2013-March 2015 combined:

 

RANKING STATE NO. of DEATHS LAW ENFORCEMENT KILLINGS, PER MILLION RESIDENTS
1 New Mexico 17 8.223
2 Montana 8 8.045
3 Nevada 21 7.751
4 Oklahoma 29 7.703
5 Arizona 48 7.485
6 Utah 16 5.775
7 Washington 35 5.183
8 California 185 4.954
9 West Virginia 9 4.839
10 Hawaii 6 4.390

 

The Guardian, a London-based newspaper, has also begun a database of police shootings in the United States.  As of August 14, 2015, The Guardian reported 715 police shooting deaths in the United States, 32 of them in Arizona.  Arizona ranked fourth among the states in terms of total number of police deaths (only California, Texas, and Florida had more total police shooting deaths, although each of these states ranked far lower than Arizona in terms of per capita shootings).  Arizona ranked third among the states in terms of per capita police shootings – only Wyoming and Oklahoma had the dubious distinction of having more police shootings per capita than Arizona.

Indeed, Arizona’s issues with law enforcement-related shootings has not gone unnoticed, even internationally.  In a December 13, 2014 article in The Economist entitled “Don’t Shoot,” the conservative newspaper noted that not only does the United States exceed other countries in police shootings by a staggering percentage – ironic given our constitutional provision expressly forbidding excessive force – but specifically identified several problem cities:  “The places that stand out as having a lot of police shootings relative to the number of murders are Riverside, San Diego and Sacramento in California; and Tucson and Phoenix in Arizona.”

There are undoubtedly numerous reasons why Arizona ranks so high in police related shootings.  Studies have shown that states with higher gun ownership rates also have higher police shooting rates.   In that regard, the states topping the police shootings per capita list – Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Arizona – are states with high gun ownership rates.  Of course, high gun ownership rates present a danger to police officers as well:  Shooting deaths of police officers are higher in states with higher gun ownership rates.

However, this can only partly explain the story in Arizona.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is some degree of indifference to excessive use of force by some police agencies in Arizona.  Scottsdale Police employed an officer who had killed seven people as an officer, finally parting ways after he shot and killed a man holding a baby.  Many of the victims of recent police shootings in Arizona were unarmed and, in many cases, other officers were effecting non-lethal options to subdue the suspect when another officer opened fire.  These incidents suggest a lack of adequate training for Arizona officers.

The fictional Los Angeles homicide detective Harry Bosch – the protagonist in numerous books authored by Michael Connelly – repeatedly declares that “everyone matters, or no one matters.”  This mantra is true for the victims of police shootings as well.  The victims include a twice-decorated Iraqi war veteran, a father of five, and many others loved and adored by their families.

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