The Research Behind Police Shootings

By Kaitlyn Benacquisto
News Reporter

Paul Taylor, PhD student at the School of Criminal Justice at University of Albany, SUNY, shared his research over police decision-making and human error of police shootings at Texas State University Tuesday night.

Taylor has created a new classification system for police shootings, depicting all situations in which an officer pulls the trigger and the outcome can be defined as an error. He hopes his typology will create a common language for discussing, recognizing and understanding police shooting errors.

Misdiagnosis error

Intended trigger pull + hit intended target

Misdiagnosis errors are context driven, explained Taylor. Approximately 10 percent of police shootings fall under this category. Take Francisco Serna as an example: when police approached him, he reached for his pocket, and they promptly shot Mr. Serna, believing he was reaching for a firearm. Serna was reportedly just reaching for his pocket crucifix, troubled by his dementia and believing that he was lost.

Misapplication error

Unintended trigger pull + hit intended target

These errors are also commonly known as Weapon Confusion Errors, or Slip and Capture Errors. The most common form of this is police reaching for their tasers, but instead grabbing their firearms unknowingly, and shooting their victims. Take Oscar Grant as an example: Grant was approached by police in a crowded train station on New Years Day and police forced him down.

Officer Johannes Mehserle said, “I am going to tase you!” then proceeded to pull out his firearm and shoot Mr. Grant one time in the back.


Intended trigger pull + unintended target

Taylor said that hit rates in the field are only about 20-50 percent on average. Shooting errors are much more common than correct action. Take Jeffrey Johnson’s shooting as an example: two police officers shot and killed Johnson after he pointed a weapon on them, but nine bystanders were hit by bullets or bullet fragments.

Unintentional discharges

Unintended trigger pull + hit unintended target

Unintentional discharges are rare incidents in which firearms malfunction or fail. Take Akai Gurley as an example: two police officers were at the bottom of his apartment stairwell when they heard a noise above them. One of the officers reportedly accidentally discharged his weapon, and the bullet ricocheted off the wall and hit Gurley in the chest, killing him.

Taylor acknowledges the flaws and strengths of his research.

“The systems base approach doesn’t get rid of individual accountability, but it says what we call human error is a symptom of an underlying problem,” said Taylor. “It provides a window into practice. Human error is an attribution, it’s a judgement we make after the fact.”

Christine Sellers, who is both a professor and the Director of the School of Criminal Justice at Texas State, echoed Taylor’s thoughts on police shooting. Sellers said that it is important that we continue to look at the bigger picture when it comes to police shootings, so we can identify the underlying cause as Taylor said.

“There’s a much larger problem that needs to be addressed,” said Sellers. “We need to get underneath what is causing the problem in the first place and whether it’s intentional or unintentional, particularly with unintentional officer involved shootings, we’ve got to get down to the bottom of the problem there. Those are the things that, if we understood them, we could address first and really get to narrow down our focus on the cases where there is personal culpability.”

Sellers said she thinks it is important that people don’t put all of their focus on a handful of cases that get the most media attention, but rather, the bulk of the cases. She said that once we discover the underlying problem and create a solution, there will be more energy to expend on cases in which there is malice or racism being shown from police officers.

Taylor has over eleven years of law enforcement experience. He served in the Navy as a Naval Law Enforcement officer, as a Deputy Sheriff for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in California, and as a police officer, patrol sergeant and training manager with the University of Colorado Boulder Police Department. He took up research after having questions regarding police ability to use force to maintain a government agenda. Taylor hopes his work will drive discussion surrounding the topic.

Featured illustration by Kaitlyn Benacquisto.

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