In The West, What’s Behind The Number Of Deaths In Police Confrontations?

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Killings by police
Deaths from 2000-2015 in western states, per million population, after encounters with police.

This story first aired on 1/5/2016.

In Western states including Colorado, citizens are more likely to die at the hands of police than in other states, reporter Kate Schimel found in her a recent article for High Country News.

The numbers can seem surprising given how incidents in big cities like Chicago, Cleveland and Baltimore have captured national headlines. But even in the rural West, as with other locations making headlines, the victims are often black or Hispanic.

According to data spanning 2004 to 2010 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Mexico, Oregon and Nevada have the highest rates in the nation for fatal injury due to “legal intervention” — the rate of deaths per 100,000 people is more than twice the national average. Utah, California, Colorado and Idaho also rank in the top 10.

Schimel joined Colorado Matters Host Ryan Warner to discuss the factors at play. Edited highlights from their conversation are below.

What the data shows regarding police-involved deaths:

"One thing to note is that the data is very incomplete and difficult to find.

"The federal databases indicate that states like Nevada, Oregon, New Mexico rank among the highest for police-involved killings in the country.

"The Guardian newspaper out of the U.K. started a database called The Counted, which tracked all of the police-involved killings that they could find last year. In that database, six of the top states are Western states and the top two states are New Mexico and Wyoming."

How some rural police officers face different challenges:

"[Rural officers] are far more likely to encounter people who are armed. In an urban setting, I think that people tend to perceive that as escalation and in a rural setting, it's a harder thing to assess. It's always a challenging situation for officers to tackle. [...]

"That means that when [officers] go into a situation, their lives are at risk. [...]

"In sparsely populated rural areas, officers are often patrolling alone or in pairs and backup is far away. So in terms of security for them and feeling like they could deescalate the situation [or] other people might show up, that's far more unlikely in a place like Council, Idaho."

How training can hurt or help the prospects of calming a situation:

"The training in rural areas often doesn't look so different from the training in urban areas. You see an increasing focus on military tactics, military weapons. The Albuquerque Police Department--which is obviously not rural but is not unlike some other rural departments nearby--had a class called 'Kill-ology' which was about officers learning how to have a soldier mindset. And that sort of thing is really focused not on deescalating situations using other tactics. [...]

"Las Vegas was taken to task by the feds for really pretty brutal police tactics a number of years ago. And in the years since, they have really focused on changing their tactics. I think that's a complicated situation, but some of the data and some of the responses indicate they have come up with interesting ways to do this.

"One former officer from Craig, Colorado, said that his department, his former department, really had a thoughtful culture around if an incident happened, talking about it. And talking about it not uncritically -- discussing what would be the better way to handle that. I think those kinds of conversations among police officers are really really crucial to changing how we police."