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Investigation reveals how often misuse of police less-lethal force tactics kills

Law enforcement often use what's called less-lethal force when they are not aiming to kill. Instead of guns, they’ll use things like tasers, physical holds and body blows to stop someone without killing them. But, as the world saw after the murder of George Floyd, when these tactics are misused, they can still result in death.

Now, a new investigation led by the Associated Press shows just how often that happens. The project took years — and was produced with "Frontline" PBS as well as the Howard Centers for Investigative Journalism both at the University of Maryland and here at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Lauren Mucciolo is an executive producer for the Howard Center at ASU and spoke to The Show about what the project found.

Full interview

LAUREN MUCCIOLO: What we mean when we say less-lethal force is force that's not intended to be deadly. So, you know, there is a whole industry in creating tools and, and developing training tactics around less-lethal uses of force. So this can range from things like tasers and other kinds of stun guns. This can include, you know, physical takedowns and other kinds of, you know, hands-on engagement. It can also refer to you know, something that we talk quite a bit about in the project, is prone restraint or essentially lying somebody on their, their stomach face down, which, which has an impact on their ability to breathe. So there's a lot of different techniques that are kind of thrown into this catch-all category.

But the idea is that these are tactics that aren't meant to be deadly. These are tactics that are supposed to be used when people aren't posing a lethal threat to either law enforcement or to the general public. This is supposed to be what the police turn to when they're trying to not, cause a deadly event

LAUREN GILGER: Right, but your investigation found this, this does happen. People do die from these kinds of tactics. And it was quite a project to find out exactly how many examples of this there are. But give us the big picture. How many did you find?

MUCCIOLO: Right. So I think many of us have heard about the George Floyd incident in 2020. I mean, that's kind of what sparked a lot of the interest in pursuing this project. How many, how many cases are there like this out there in America? And over two years by, you know, looking at law enforcement agencies, medical examiners records, prosecutor's offices, we were able to identify just over 1,000 incidents where people had died during or shortly after incidents with police that involved less-lethal force.

GILGER: Wow. OK. So give us some examples of what this often looks like. I mean, every case is different, obviously, but what kinds of situations tend to lead to officers to turn to things like a taser or a stun gun or a hold or something like that? Is it often like mental health crises?

MUCCIOLO: We see a lot of mental health crises, so it can be mental health. It can also involve like a drug induced crisis or other kind of medical crisis. We found that a lot of the cases that we identified were actually law enforcement responding to somebody who is having a crisis in their own home. Many of these deaths actually took place in the, in the home of the person who died. And so there were oftentimes, family members called saying, you know, we need help with this family member who's in crisis. Sometimes it was the individuals themselves who called and said I'm having a crisis. I need, I need help. Those were, you know, clearly some of the most heartbreaking.

I mean, there were certainly other incidents where folks were committing a crime or were a part of some other infraction, but there were many cases where people were not armed, they were not involved in any kind of criminal, you know, incident or if they were, it was, it was a minor infraction that didn't, you know, sort of equate with somebody needing to have their life taken as a result of that. And there was many people just on drugs, people who were having really bad experiences during drug crises.

GILGER: So you talked a little bit about the scope of this and how you went about tracking the number of cases that ended in death like this. How often were police actually found to have been at fault or like at least contributing to the deaths? Like were many of these cases, did they not even mention police often?

MUCCIOLO: You know, that that was one of the more difficult challenges we had, you know, in front of us as reporters. How do we identify these incidents and how do we, you know, try to actually prove some kind of responsibility? We tried to as best we could, rely on as many records as we could find. We, you know, as much as we got tips or you know, leads on cases to look at from, you know, for example, things posted online. There's a couple of online databases that have been created by academics and independent researchers. There's been some media reports, but we actually went and tried to find documentation on every single incident that we included in this database so that we can verify what happened. But there's a lot of information in these cases that's missing, that would actually provide some clarity on what really happened.

You know, sometimes there was body camera footage and sometimes there wasn't, you know. There were certainly some, for example, autopsy and medical examiners reports that made mention of police restraint as being involved during the death. But there were many medical examiners reports that didn't mention any involvement from law enforcement. And you know what we found, there are some efforts for the federal government to collect data on these cases. For example, the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control [And Prevention], has a mortality database. It does include some information on law enforcement.

But what we learned, once we compared what we had found with our data to, to that data set, they were missing the majority of the cases that we had identified.

GILGER: One of the major findings here. You found that these kinds of deaths disproportionately affect Black people in a pretty major way. Tell us that the breakdown there.

MUCCIOLO: Yes, the the toll definitely fell disproportionately on Black Americans. They made up a third of those who died, according to the data that we were able to collect, despite representing only 12% of the U.S. population. So, but they were definitely a, a particularly vulnerable group in this study. You know, the other big vulnerable group that we identified were people who were impaired by medical mental health or other kinds of drug emergencies.

GILGER: Yeah. Yeah. What did law enforcement have to say about all of this, Lauren?

MUCCIOLO: So we are going to have a lot more reporting coming out over the course of the next couple of months, and some of our reporting is going to include, I think, more of a perspective on law enforcement, the toll on law enforcement, accountability measurements that are being done by law enforcement. So I think we're still going to see more coming from the law enforcement on their reaction, you know, to some of our findings. And we're also going to see more as the reporting continues to be released on how law enforcement and how departments are going about trying to review these incidents when they take place, how departmental policy and police training is shaped around these kinds of incidents and whether officers are disciplined or, you know, supervisors are disciplined when these, when these incidents take place.

GILGER: Yeah. So it sounds like there is some momentum in the law enforcement community to try to stop these deaths from happening. That is not how these tactics are supposed to work.

MUCCIOLO: Yeah, but you know, the biggest problem is if we're not actively collecting data on these kinds of cases, if we're not looking at this problem and really naming it for what it is, then we don't really have an ability to, to really be doing anything to try, make change, try to reform. So I think the fact that this database, you know, now exists and it's clearly an undercount, we know it's an undercount, but hopefully we can start to generate a little bit more attention and understanding that we do need to be thinking about training. And we need to be thinking about setting standards around training and setting standards around some of the techniques and less-lethal that came to light from the investigation, like prone restraint.

You know, we've actually determined that prone restraint is taught very differently, state to state, department to department. Some departments actually feel that prone restraint is a safe way to subdue somebody during a police encounter. Other police departments teach that very differently and say that you should be turning the person on their side as quickly as possible. So the fact that we don't really have national standards and national guidance on this, departments are really left to to do things as, as they would like.

And so we can see how, you know, when we're not kind of looking at this problem in a more systematic way, what the sort of consequences of that is.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.