LISTEN: New study examines Alaska law enforcement officers’ use of deadly force

Police investigate Dave Rose Park after a suspect was shot by police in August of 2019. Police say the man pointed a BB gun at officers before being fired upon. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Research on Alaska law enforcement officers’ use of deadly force shows two-thirds of incidents involved a person with mental or behavioral health issues.

That’s according to a new report by the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center that examined 92 cases from 2010 to 2020 in which an officer used lethal force.

The report notes that a third of such incidents involved a person expressing they wanted officers to end their life, and displaying or using a firearm at the same time.

The data come from state case files. The report’s authors, including UAA Justice Center Director Dr. Troy Payne, say the information is useful but limited.

As Payne told Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove, he thinks the state needs a comprehensive, mandatory data collection on lethal force incidents to be able to follow trends and inform policy decisions.

LISTEN HERE:

Read a full transcript of the interview with minor edits for clarity.

Troy Payne: The case files that the Office of Special Prosecutions has, they’re made for a specific purpose: determining whether or not there’s going to be the potential for criminal liability on the part of police officers. They don’t necessarily have all the details the public might want to know.

A good example of that is the officer’s race, or how long the officer has worked for the agency. In most of these incidents, those kinds of details are not legally relevant to the analysis that the Office of Special prosecutions is doing. And so they’re not routinely in these files.

Casey Grove: Is it fair to say, though, one thing coming out of this report is that two-thirds of these incidents involve some kind of mental health issue, and officers often aren’t aware of it, so maybe we should try to do something different? Is that fair to say?

TP: I think it’s both fair and unfair to say that police should be doing something differently in these incidents.

One of the other things that that we found is that in these incidents where the citizen wanted to die, and told someone else — not only that, but that they wanted the police to do it — in 70% of these incidents, that citizen used a firearm. They either displayed or pointed or fired a gun at someone else.

So when we’re trying to get through what it is police should be doing differently, or what society should be doing differently, it’s hard to put all of that on the police officers or on the police departments responding to the incidents.

The officers are responding to an acute mental health crisis. They’re also responding to an acute public safety hazard, and those interests have to be balanced. We really did not find a lot of easy answers to these kinds of questions.

For me, what it suggests is that there need to be a better array of services upstream before someone gets to a crisis point, and more options available for dealing with folks who are in a crisis. But in most of these incidents, there’s a clear and present public safety issue at the time officers are using deadly force.

CG: Getting back to the data, is there anything you can take out of this report that compares Alaska to other states in terms of how many police use of deadly force incidents we have? Or any other part of that?

TP: No. I would not suggest comparing Alaska to other states, based on the information in this report.

Everybody reports on these things differently. There are differing amounts of information available, there are different definitions that are used. It’s very difficult to compare across multiple states, on most topics in criminal justice, and certainly on this one.

As an example of a potential gray area for the use of deadly force, it’s possible that you could have something (reported) as potentially lethal, but wasn’t. Does that get reviewed by (the Office of Special Prosecutions)? Or does it get treated as an ordinary use of force? And the short answer is that we don’t really know. And we certainly don’t know what that’s like in other states.

CG: We’re talking numbers here, and you’ve got about 100 incidents you’re looking at. But of course, each one of those involves an individual person, an individual incident that ended in tragedy. And I wonder, as you’re going through those reports one by one, does that sink in?

TP: When we’re going through these kinds of investigative case files, many of them have photographs. They all have narratives. So you have the interviews with police officers, you have transcripts of interviews with witnesses, sometimes with the citizens involved or with people that are related to them. It’s not possible to forget these are real people on every side of every one of these incidents.

We are looking at some of the worst things that human beings do to one another and we’re seeing people often on the worst day possible of their lives. It’s certainly something that we remember doing this kind of research — every single one of these incidents involves often a series of tragedies for everyone involved.