Police shootings in Detroit are on the decline. But we still don’t know the whole picture.

Detroit recently emerged from federal oversight and implemented many reforms.
May 14, 2018, 12:44pm

Detroit police officers didn’t shoot and kill anyone in 2016.

In fact, they fired their guns just 14 times that year, a significant drop in shootings for the nation’s 13th-largest local police department and a big turnaround from a decade ago, when Detroit cops routinely shot at dozens of people a year.

The department recently emerged from years of federal oversight and implemented many reforms, and the declining number of police shootings could be seen as a success story. Other major-city police departments shot 11.6 people on average in 2016, a VICE News analysis found last year.

But you probably haven’t heard much about Detroit, despite heightened national scrutiny of police shootings. That's because the city has been shockingly bad at sharing these numbers. And without greater transparency, there's still a lot we don't know about police violence in one of the country's largest departments.

Read: Police shoot far more people than anyone realized, a VICE News investigation reveals

When VICE News began looking into both fatal and nonfatal police shootings in major American cities last year, Detroit was particularly unforthcoming. We sought records on shootings from 2010 through 2016, and the Detroit Law Department said it would cost more than $77,000 and take up to 3,120 business days — which translates to just under 12 years — to retrieve these records. We ended up with only a partial count that showed 111 shootings over four years.

New data reveals Detroit Police Department officers shot at people 140 times from 2010 through 2016. They killed 20. Those numbers place Detroit 16th in police shootings among large American cities. Moreover, while there were more than 50 total discharges each year from 2006 to 2008, that number shrank gradually to just more than a dozen in 2016. (The department started tracking shootings differently in 2017.)

The numbers also show Detroit among the ranks of cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, which saw significant drops in shootings in recent years after being put under federal oversight. Law enforcement agencies under “consent decrees,” a set of recommended reforms created in concert with the Justice Department, tend to see a drop in police shootings, VICE News found.

The Detroit Police Department has long had a strained relationship with the city’s residents, in part because of incidents of police violence. In an infamous 1967 episode, officers killed three black teenagers during a riot, sparking further protests and tension. More recent police shootings, like the 2010 slaying of 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, also led to significant outcry.

In an investigation that concluded in 2003, the Justice Department found that the DPD had committed significant civil rights abuses, and placed the agency under a consent decree. That oversight ended only two years ago.

“I think [federal monitoring] is the primary reason” for the decline in shootings in Detroit, said Willie Bell, an elected member of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, a civilian oversight group. Policies like improved accountability procedures, better guides for when officers should use lethal force, and more realistic training are associated with fewer shootings; Detroit implemented some of those reforms in the last few years.

The Detroit Police Department’s assistant chief, Arnold Williams, told VICE News that he thinks the training given to DPD officers, including an emphasis on simulations, also played a role in cutting down the department’s officer-involved shootings.

“It was a combination of layers that put us where we are now,” Williams said, adding that the federal oversight helped the department with documentation and accountability. “It allows us the ability to monitor officers and to see if we have officers who are using force at an inordinate amount.”

But it’s hard to know what’s responsible for the drop in shootings, or if any problems persist, because the department has so far shared far less information on these incidents than others do.

Detroit released the new data on police shootings thanks to a public records request by Sam Sinyangwe of the advocacy group Campaign Zero. Last year, VICE News requested detailed information on each shooting, such as whether the person shot was armed and demographic details about the officer and the subject. That’s when we got the $77,000 bill.

Ellen Ha, who handles all public records requests for the city, told VICE News that Campaign Zero’s request likely took less time (and money) to fulfill because it was less detailed. Sinyangwe asked for “the total number of Detroit police shootings that either hit or missed a civilian for each year from 2010-2017,” according to a copy of the request.

Other police departments across the country have published records of police shootings online, for free. They’ve also publicized data on each shooting’s circumstances, including the race of everybody involved and whether the person who was shot committed a crime before the shooting. That information led VICE News to conclude that police shoot people more than twice as often as previously thought, since two-thirds of subjects survived. Cops also disproportionately shoot people of color, and many subjects are unarmed.

Get the data: Explore data on police shootings from the nation's 50 largest local police departments

Without that information about Detroit’s shootings, it’s tough to contextualize the actions of the city’s officers, or to understand what role, if any, bias may play — or how to combat it. For Ryan Fielder, co-chair of the Detroit chapter of the advocacy group BYP100, the statistics the department released left several questions unanswered.

“Were people armed? Were they threatened at the time?” Fielder asked. “I just want to know that, with any police shooting activity, was it something that has to go there? And if not, I would just like to see some real accountability taking place.”

Fielder said he did not see the decline in police shootings as a success story for Detroit, pointing out, “We experience way more violence than just police shootings.”

Releasing information about police shootings can be helpful in improving trust between the community and the police, experts say. “We want to share information, whether good, bad, or ugly,” Bell said. “If information is not shared, people think there’s a coverup.”

Some police departments have updated their practices after making data available. In Burlington, Vermont, data showed that there was racial bias in traffic stops, so the department began a new training regimen designed to reduce disparate treatment. A recent analysis found that the level of bias was on the decline.

“That’s the Holy Grail of data: when the data is being used internally to improve processes,” said Denice Ross, a cofounder of the Police Data Initiative, an organization that advocates for the release of law enforcement data.

Read: Jeff Sessions is walking away from the best way to reduce police shootings

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, an Obama-era council that made transparency one of its six “pillars” of modern policing, encouraged departments to submit data to the Police Data Initiative. But many departments, Ross noted, struggle to make the data available even for internal use, as some don’t have the data organized in an accessible format.

Sometimes, data can vindicate departments accused of racially biased use of force, like when Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer found no evidence of racial bias in officer-involved shootings in Houston. But in the absence of that data, it can be difficult to know whether a department is doing a good job at limiting deadly force or using it far too often.

Still, many law enforcement agencies have become more forthcoming in recent years. “Back in 2014, we could count on one hand the number of cities releasing anything close to accountability data for their police, and now there’s more than 300 data sets that are public as part of the Police Data Initiative,” Ross said.

The Detroit Police Department officially launched an open-data portal in March 2018, Williams said, but officer-involved shootings are not yet uploaded to it.

“We haven’t thought about releasing this as part of our open data portal. Is it something that we may consider moving forward?” he asked. “It may be.”