Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Police Stories from The Washington Post

Law enforcement took more stuff from people than burglars did last year

Here's an interesting factoid about contemporary policing: In 2014, for the first time ever, law enforcement officers took more property from American citizens than burglars did. Martin Armstrong pointed this out at his blog, Armstrong Economics, last week.

Officers can take cash and property from people without convicting or even charging them with a crime — yes, really! — through the highly controversial practice known as civil asset forfeiture. Last year, according to the Institute for Justice, the Treasury and Justice departments deposited more than $5 billion into their respective asset forfeiture funds. That same year, the FBI reports that burglary losses topped out at $3.5 billion.

Armstrong claims that "the police are now taking more assets than the criminals," but this isn't exactly right: The FBI also tracks property losses from larceny and theft, in addition to plain ol' burglary. If you add up all the property stolen in 2014, from burglary, theft, motor vehicle theft and other means, you arrive at roughly $12.3 billion, according to the FBI. That's more than double the federal asset forfeiture haul.

[In tough times, police start seizing a lot more stuff]

One other point: Those asset forfeiture deposit amounts are not necessarily the best indicator of a rise in the use of forfeiture. "In a given year, one or two high-dollar cases may produce unusually large amounts of money — with a portion going back to victims — thereby telling a noisy story of year-to-year activity levels," the Institute for Justice explains. A big chunk of that 2014 deposit, for instance, was the $1.7 billion Bernie Madoff judgment, most of which flowed back to the victims.

For that reason, the net assets of the funds are usually seen as a more stable indicator — those numbers show how much money is left over in the funds each year after the federal government takes care of various obligations, like payments to victims. Since this number can reflect monies taken over multiple calendar years, it's less comparable to the annual burglary statistics.

Still, even this more stable indicator hit $4.5 billion in 2014, according to the Institute for Justice — higher again than the burglary losses that year.

One final caveat is that these are only the federal totals and don't reflect how much property is seized by state and local police each year. Reliable data for all 50 states is unavailable, but the Institute of Justice found that the total asset forfeiture haul for 14 states topped $250 million in 2013. The grand 50-state total would probably be much higher.

Still, boil down all the numbers and caveats above and you arrive at a simple fact: In the United States, in 2014, more cash and property transferred hands via civil asset forfeiture than via burglary. The total value of asset forfeitures was more than one-third of the total value of property stolen by criminals in 2014. That represents something of a sea change in the way police do business — and it's prompting plenty of scrutiny of the practice.

The surprising reason more police dogs are dying in the line of duty

U.S. Border Patrol officer Noe Bazan and his dog, Billy, compete in the 2015 Police and Fire Games in Reston. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post) 

By all accounts, Wednesday's encounter between French police and a group of suspected terrorists in the Paris suburbs was an incredibly violent one: 5,000 bullets fired, dozens of grenades thrown, bodies so damaged that at first authorities were unable to say how many people had been killed.
So it's somewhat remarkable that there was only one fatality on the police side of the showdown: Diesel, a 7-year-old Belgian Malinois police dog who was sent into the apartment at one point to check for survivors. The dog was killed when one of the people in the apartment detonated a suicide vest.

Diesel's death sparked a popular hashtag and an outpouring of respect and grief on social media. And it highlighted the role specially trained dogs play in often dangerous law enforcement situations in France, as well as right here in the United States.

It's unclear exactly how many police dogs are active in the United States. Jim Watson, director of the North American Police Work Dog Association, gave a "wild guess" of around 50,000 dogs in 2010. The dogs are deployed to various domestic law enforcement agencies, doing everything from bomb- and drug-sniffing to chasing down suspected criminals.

And, unfortunately, police dog work can sometimes be deadly. The Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks police fatalities in the line of duty, includes numbers on police dog fatalities as well. Their numbers show that in 2015 so far, 26 police dogs have been killed in the line of duty — a number that's up sharply over the previous two years.

In the most recent incident they've tracked, a dog named Hyco with the Anderson County Sheriff's Office in South Carolina was shot and killed while chasing a group of suspected carjackers. In September, a police dog named Ike in Washington state was stabbed multiple times while attempting to subdue a suspect and had to be euthanized due to the extent of his injuries.

But while a number of dogs have died at the hands of a suspected criminal this year, the ODMP's numbers show that canine officers face an even bigger threat: heat exhaustion, particularly from being left in a squad car on a hot day.

This year alone at least 11 dogs died from heat exhaustion, according to the ODMP. In August, two dogs with the Baltimore City Detention Center died when the air conditioning failed in a vehicle they were in. In Florida, an officer was suspended without pay in May when he inadvertently left two police dogs in a car at his home.

The heat deaths "happen at a pretty alarming rate," said Steve Weiss, an NYPD lieutenant who serves as ODMP's Director of Research. "I was surprised by how often it happens."

Weiss says that many K9 unit vehicles are now being outfitted with electronic systems that automatically regulate heat and humidity. Some systems can alert remote officers if the AC fails or the temperature gets too high, and allow them to immediately pop the trunk or doors to allow dogs to escape. More widespread adoption of these systems would cut down on the heat exhaustion deaths, according to Weiss.

Weiss says better laws protecting police dogs would help too. "The laws in many states involving the deaths of police animals are not very strict," he said. "Every state is different."

Update: This piece has been updated to reflect that authorities do not currently believe the woman in the apartment, Hasna Aitboulahcen, detonated the suicide vest.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
Police chases kill more people each year than floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and lightning — combined

This week Zachary Crockett of the Priceonomics blog highlighted some eye-popping statistics on high-speed police pursuits -- you know, the kind that you see on COPS, or that local TV crews chase using helicopters. Here are the numbers that really stand out to me:

Crockett points to a 2007 study in the journal Prehospital Emergency Care, which found that these crashes take about 323 lives each year. To put it in perspective, that's more than the number of people killed by floods, tornadoes, lightning and hurricanes -- combined. These numbers come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's fatal accident database, so they only count deaths directly related to vehicle accidents involved in these chases. If a person is chased down by cops and eventually shot, for instance, that death wouldn't show up here.

But the most shocking thing is that innocent bystanders -- meaning people not at all involved with the chase -- account for 27 percent of all police chase deaths, or 87 deaths per year. If that number seems high to you, just start Googling. Some recent headlines:
This underscores a key fact that may seem obvious: high speed police chases are incredibly dangerous not just to the people involved in them, but to everyone who crosses their path. And given that many chases happen in urban areas, on densely populated city streets, the hazard to residents is high.

Given the high risk, you might assume that cops only give chase to the most violent criminals, in circumstances in which the hazards of a high-speed chase are outweighed by the risk posed by the criminals, right? But you'd be wrong.

Ninety one percent of high-speed chases are initiated in response to a non-violent crime, according to a fascinating report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Institute of Justice. They analyzed nearly 8,000 high-speed chases in the IACP's database. What they found was that the overwhelming majority of pursuits -- 91 percent of them -- were not initiated in response to a violent crime. Most -- 42 percent -- involved a simple traffic infraction. Another 18 percent involved a stolen vehicle. 15 percent involved a suspected drunk driver.

So you can start to see the problem here -- is it worth risking life and limb, barreling through town at high speed to catch somebody who ran a red light? Or who failed to signal a turn? If a driver is drunk, does it make sense to engage him in a high-speed pursuit?

Questions like these are making some localities revisit their high speed pursuit policies. There's even a non-profit dedicated to the issue. Some companies are busy devising technical solutions to it as well.

But meanwhile, the drumbeat of fatal police accidents goes on.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.