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Police-Involved Incidents in California Left 146 Civilians Dead in 2018 — a Decline From Years Past

An investigation is underway in Huntington Beach following an officer-involved shooting on Oct. 11, 2018. (Credit: KTLA)

An investigation is underway in Huntington Beach following an officer-involved shooting on Oct. 11, 2018. (Credit: KTLA)

A new report Tuesday spurred by national concern over fatal shootings by police shows 146 civilians and three officers died during law enforcement confrontations in California last year, with fewer violent encounters and suspect deaths than in previous years.

It was one of five reports released by the state attorney general’s office showing that California also saw fewer hate crimes, homicides, violent and property crimes even after voters and lawmakers significantly eased criminal penalties in recent years.

The 146 civilians who died in police confrontations is down from 172 in 2017 and 157 in 2016. But they included Stephon Clark, an unarmed black vandalism suspect killed by Sacramento police. His death helped spark an ongoing legislative debate on whether to increase police training and change the standard for when officers can use deadly force.

Three officers died last year, one more than in 2017 but down from eight in 2016.

The overall 628 such confrontations last year were down from 707 in 2017 and 782 in 2016. The so-called use-of-force incidents include only instances where officers fired their guns or people died or were seriously injured during violent encounters with police.

“It’s of course welcome news when we see a decrease in use of force from year to year,” said Magnus Lofstrom, a criminal justice researcher with the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. “These are relatively rare occurrences, so it’s sensitive to just a few events to drive these numbers. We need to be a little careful in reading into these numbers in terms of trends.”

Declining crime and arrest rates may have contributed to the decrease in deadly force because there were fewer interactions between law enforcement officers and citizens, meaning less chance for confrontations, he said.

“Of course this is good news,” said California Police Chiefs Association President Ronald Lawrence. “It doesn’t surprise me that if there’s a dip in crime there’s also a dip in use of force.”

California’s violent crime rate dropped 1.5% and property crime was down 5.1% last year. The homicide, robbery, burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft rates were all down, but there was a 5% increase in rapes. A slight decline in adult arrests was led by a nearly 6% drop in felony drug arrests, while overall juvenile arrests dropped 17.5%.

It was the first time since 2014 that both violent and property crime rates dipped in the same year, Lofstrom said, after several years of moderate increases in violent crime.

The use of force reporting grew out of state lawmakers’ concern over shootings of young minority men by police. It shows that of 677 civilians involved in such serious encounters last year, about 47% were Hispanic, 28.5% white and 19% black.

By contrast, 55% of the more than 1,500 officers involved in the incidents were white, nearly a third Hispanic and less than 5% black.

Beyond those killed, 423 civilians and 255 police were injured. One-third of civilians were hit by gunfire, while nearly 11% of officers were shot at during the confrontations.

The report comes as state lawmakers debate whether to increase training and change the standard for when officers can use deadly force.

“Overall, the number demonstrates a depressing need for the legislation to reform California’s police use of force laws, which will save lives,” said Peter Bibring, police practices director for the American Civil Liberties Union of California. “Once again, California is consistently above the national average in the per capita rate of police shootings.”

Moreover, the racial breakdown “is consistent with previous years that police shootings disproportionately affect communities of color,” he said. Blacks were affected at nearly three times their proportion of California’s population, he said.

Ed Obayashi, a use-of-force consultant to law enforcement agencies and a Plumas County deputy sheriff, cautioned against thinking that changing the deadly force standard will make much of a difference.

“When it comes to police use of force, it’s virtually impossible to identify any cause or causes that would conclude why the numbers went up or down in any particular year,” he said. “Regardless of what the law says, officers are not going to let politics or any of those considerations influence officers’ safety.”

A separate report showed that hate crime events fell 2.5% from 2017, down by about two-dozen reports to 1,066 in 2018. That follows a 17% jump the prior year, but overall, they have dropped about 3% in the last decade.

Anti-Islamic events dropped from 46 in 2017 to 28 last year. But those targeting Jews increased from 104 to 126 last year.

Hate crimes based on race or sexual orientation both fell overall. But crimes against Latinos were up from 126 in 2017 to 149 last year, while those against blacks dropped from 302 to 276.

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