How Many Is Too Many?

September 26, 2016

One is too many. No question about it.

One person, just one, out of the over 300 million in this country, shot unjustifiably by the police is one too many.

Goes without saying. Let’s all agree.

When you talk about human lives no price can assigned. No tolerance of an unwarranted loss can be accepted.

That being said, how many unjustifiable deaths at the hands of America’s law enforcement community should be expected annually?

With more than 750,000 law enforcement officers, 11 million arrests, and one billion interactions between citizens and cops—and millions of them involving out-of-control, combative, and noncompliant subjects—how many mistakes of a deadly force nature would be considered statistically probable?

Expecting none is unfortunately, impossible. After all, these over one billion contacts involve human beings. Imperfect and very fallible human beings. On both sides of the equation.

So again, how many unwarranted deaths, statistically speaking, would be estimated by the risk management and actuarial experts when considering the law enforcement profession, their duties and the situations they find themselves involved in on an annual basis?


According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website there were 1,054,360,000 patient/doctor contacts in the United States in the last current year.

From an article on the National Public Radio website: “A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine says medical errors should rank as the third leading cause of death in the United States.”

The lead author, Johns Hopkins surgeon Dr. Martin Makary, wrote: “estimates that more than 250,000 Americans die each year from medical errors. On the CDC’s official list, that would rank just behind heart disease and cancer, which each took about 600,000 lives in 2014, and in front of respiratory disease, which caused about 150,000 deaths.”

These mistakes, according to the study, are from misdiagnosis, surgical complications, mix-ups with the doses of prescriptions, or the wrong medicines being prescribed, just to name a few principle causes.

Of course, none of those deaths are acceptable. But, given that doctors and patients are human beings, and given the vast number of contacts they have in a given year, most reasonable people would concede that mistakes will be made. Lives will be lost. Is 250,000 deaths too many?

Again: One is too many.

Law Enforcement

To many of our detractors, American law enforcement is an “invading army,” “out of control,” “seriously flawed,” “behind the times,” and worse, “acting with racist motives.” What’s lacking in the analysis is often profound: empathy and a basic understanding of what police actually do. (Hint: We don’t go around shooting people every time we get scared.)

Think about it: Police will likely kill fewer than 1,000 Americans in 2016 out of more than one billion face-to-face interactions. The majority of those killed will be engaged in violent behavior, noncompliance, and most in the act of shooting or attempting to shoot when they die.

In the past two years the relationship between the police and segments of the public, in particular the black community, has worsened. I’m tired of saying it, but this needs to be remedied quickly. Police must accept their current shortcomings as well as the historical wrongs this profession has committed. We need to own that. Police must show empathy, humility, and understanding.   

In return, I would hope that the public would understand that police didn’t create the violence afflicting much of our country. 2015—the most recent year the FBI has stats for—saw the largest uptick in violent crime since 1971. 900 more black men died in 2015 than in 2014.

The latest FBI report is a major story today, but it will fade quickly from the headlines. Why? I’m not sure. But I do know this: Since last Thursday much of the front page of the New York Times has been devoted to the shooting and subsequent riots (and they are riots) in Charlotte, N.C. The lack of conclusive facts doesn’t matter. The point is the intrigue, the outrage, the myth. Ultimately, I suppose, advertising dollars.

Did you know that a 3-year-old girl was murdered in Stockton, Calif., last Sunday night? Think about that for a second. Did you know that over this last weekend in Chicago eight were murdered and another 39 murders were attempted? Did you know that every day in this country 45 or so people are murdered?

People: America has a very real violence problem. The victims of that violence and their loved ones need the police to seek justice and protect the public.

Meanwhile the police have a real public relations problem: a public relations problem that denigrates our legitimacy and emboldens criminals and leads to further violence. It’s a vicious cycle.

“Has policing changed in the YouTube era?” FBI Director James B. Comey recently asked. Undoubtedly! 99% of dashcam and bodycam footage collected by police is of no interest to the media, politicians or activists, because it shows us doing our jobs correctly. But that fraction of a fraction that goes viral and persists—that statistical anomaly—comes to define police in the public eye: Charlotte, Tulsa, St. Paul, Baton Rouge, and on and on …


I’ve said it countless times: Police can and must do better. But so too must the media, the pundits, the activists, the politicians, and, yes, our own law enforcement leadership. It’s past time to stop thinking so myopically, so selfishly. Incendiary comments make headlines, but they also spread lies. Failure to deal with reality leads inexorably to an unnecessary loss of life.

I predicted over two years ago in an article titled Stop Working, before Ferguson, that continual unwarranted demonization of all police would cause officers to stop being proactive. The result of that would be more violence in neighborhoods, and more death.

I wish I could say that I was wrong.

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