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HLPR 2016 Symposium Day 3: Prof. Franklin Zimring on International Comparisons of Killings of and by Police


Franklin Zimring, William G Simon Professor of Law at U.C. Berkeley

Philip Heymann, James Barr Ames Professor of Law at Harvard Law School


By Kate Epstein

“Every year there are dozens of articles in law reviews about capital punishment, and there are none about the use of lethal force,” said Prof. Frank Zimring. The third day of the HLPR Symposium focused on that lethal force, centering on a discussion of police killings in the United States through a comparative international lens. Prof. Zimring described his article, Can Foreign Experience Inform U.S. Policy on Killings of and by Police?, which compares the rate of killings of and by police in the United States to other countries like Germany and the U.K. Prof. Phillip Heymann responded.

The talk began with Prof. Zimring comparing the handfuls of police deaths in England, Wales, and Germany to the approximately 1,000 deaths in the United States. His article contains a statistical analysis of these numbers, controlling for variables including the United States’ higher level of overall violence based on the national homicide rate. His ultimate conclusion is that “the elephant in the living room when you do international comparisons … is that there are 60 million concealable handguns in the United States.” The existence of concealable guns, he argues, accounts for higher rates of casualties in police interactions. In altercations without civilian gun ownership, the risk to police officers is much lower. “Only one thing other than a bomb can kill a police officer, and that is a gun.” In his comparison countries, the level of handgun ownership is much lower, and without guns, interactions turn violent less often, and fatal even more rarely.

Prof. Heymann followed up, asking whether alternative explanations—anger of police or civilians, cultural differences, or civilian actions—could account for the different numbers. Given the scale of difference, Prof. Zimring thinks not.

Prof. Zimring had two concrete suggestions, centering on effective administrative controls within police departments. He suggested that, like the U.K., we should publish statistics from each police department about violent encounters which can be used to hold individual departments accountable. His other major suggestion was police management. Based on analysis of seven years of shootings in Chicago, he noted that fatality rates were much lower when police fired fewer shots in a given encounter. Policies to stop shooting earlier—for example, when a civilian is running away, or already on the ground—could prevent a number of deaths each year. By recognizing the effect of gun ownership on police killings, Prof. Zimring proposed that we can make simple, concrete changes to minimize use of lethal force. The talk was cosponsored by ACS and the DOS Grant Fund.

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