Officialdom’s primary response to police shootings and other uses of deadly force is currently backward-looking and legalistic. Local authorities review a killing to determine whether laws and department policies were followed. The most egregious police killings renew protests that succeed in generating attention, statements of concern from corporations, and gestures of solidarity from progressives, but not in reducing police killings. That cycle fuels anger, fear, polarization, and civic dysfunction, including occasional riots, with cultural effects that most Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, progressives, and libertarians dislike. Most everyone would benefit from more constructive responses all around.
A faction within the Black Lives Matter movement is proposing potentially valuable policy changes at the local level. Well-researched initiatives such as Campaign Zero and 8 Can’t Wait would encourage community oversight of cops, more restrictive policies toward the use of force, and other specific reforms that appear likely to save lives. But among fellow activists, they are losing mindshare to another faction that advocates for defunding the police, a nonstarter among the broader public. “The only thing most people can seem to agree on—even at the height of the protests after Floyd’s death—is that they’re against the idea of defunding the police,” FiveThirtyEight reported recently in an assessment of survey data. “And this remains true today, even among Black Americans and Democrats.”
The most constructive way that the federal government responds to avoidable loss of life is arguably in its treatment of aviation. Whenever a plane crash occurs, big or small, headline-grabbing or obscure, a team of experts is dispatched to reconstruct exactly what happened. The aim isn’t to advance a legal process or punish wrongdoers, but to figure out which changes, if any, could prevent it from happening again.
“Aviation is safe in large part because it learns from its disasters,” my colleague James Fallows, himself a recreational pilot, has argued. The NTSB’s painstaking collection and evaluation of evidence after each accident can take months or even years, but the investigations yield insights that save lives. “From the dawn of commercial aviation through the 1990s,” Fallows writes, “1,000 to 2,000 people would typically die each year in airline crashes. Today, the worldwide total is usually about one-tenth that level.”
What if every police killing triggered that sort of response?
Focusing “on only the immediate causer” of a police killing “and the narrow time frame that defines [the officer’s] actions” is inadequate, the University of Virginia law professor Barbara E. Armacost argued in the Ohio State Law Journal, because “the killing of unarmed civilians by police results from multiple causes, both human and systemic, that set the stage for the tragic moment when the shot was fired.” A broader, NTSB-style approach would not ignore any factors.