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How Junk Science Helped Kill Tyre Nichols

By Eike Blohm, MD

The militarization of American police is based on decades-old flawed pseudoscientific studies. The consequences are the deaths of unarmed civilians like Tyre Nichols.

In 1989, a pivotal study entitled “Killed in the Line of Duty” was published and circulated widely among law enforcement professionals. It even was featured on the front page of the Times. The Department of Justice promoted the study which had been conducted by two FBI agents, of which only one had formal scientific training. The core conclusion of the research was that there are certain behavioral characteristics that increase the likelihood of an officer being killed on the job: murdered officers tended to be friendly, well-liked by the community, and only used force as a last resort. Logical extrapolation from the results predicted that in order to survive, officers had to dominate any given situation immediately and exert complete control over the suspect with as much force as is required to achieve that outcome. It is what is taught in police academies today.

The problem is that the study was deeply flawed in its methods. The two researchers interviewed 50 prisoners convicted of killing police officers. This is an incredibly small sample size on which to draw any conclusion, let alone conclusions that reformed the way police officers interact with civilians. The smaller the sample size; the higher the likelihood that findings are due to random chance rather than an existing underlying pattern.

Another issue is recall bias. A person who regrets having killed another human being might in their remorse remember them in a much more positive light. In retrospect the officer is portrayed friendly and caring.

Lastly, no comparison can be made without a control group. The study authors failed to also interview a group of people who had the opportunity to kill a police officer and chose not to do so. It may be the case that the officers spared were just as friendly as those killed, but that remains unknown due to the poor study design.

Despite its flaws, the conclusion for the need to establish domination engrained itself in American law enforcement culture. And it proves deadly coupled with another police myth based on inaccurate data: traffic stops are exceedingly dangerous to police officers. It is true that a large percentage of officer deaths occur during traffic stops. Yet this is not due to the inherent dangers of pulling over a driver who ran a stop sign, but the result of the vast number of traffic stops performed in the United States. A rare outcome (death of an officer) of a common event (traffic stop) will occur with appreciable frequency. But statistically speaking, a traffic stop carries no more danger than most other police work.

When the officers approached Tyre Nichols during a traffic stop, their perception was that their work was inherently dangerous, the driver of the car a potential killer of friendly and de-escalating officers, and their only solution to dominate the situation right away. As each individual officer attempted to establish dominance by issuing commands to Mr. Nichols, many were contradictory and his failure to comply with all of them seen as resistance, requiring escalation of force. This is not meant to exculpate the officers involved. But as the death of an unarmed civilian at the hands of police officers is no isolated incident, it is necessary to evaluate which aspects of police training and culture enable such behavior rather than assign blame solely to the officers involved.


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