Book Review: When police kill

Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterBook Reviews
Book Reviews
Zimring, F. E. (2018). When police kill. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 320 pp. $19.95, ISBN 978-0-
Reviewed by: Taryn Zastrow ,George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA
DOI: 10.1177/0734016819858659
Late in the summer of 2014, Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old White police off‌icer in the city of
Ferguson, MO, responded to a dispatch call about a theft at a local convenience store. The seemingly
typical call ended with Wilson shooting and subsequently killing Michael Brown, an 18-year-old
Black man. The events that occurred between the call and the shooting have been widely debated
ever since, and the fatal shooting sparked civil unrest almost immediatelycaptivating the attention
of the media, government agencies, and the nation at large. While not the f‌irst high-prof‌ile incident
involving the use of lethal force by a police off‌icer, something about this event triggered a nationwide
conversation about the relationship between law enforcement and civilians, specif‌ically African
American men.
In When Police Kill, criminologist Franklin E. Zimring considers this social movement in the
United States and the relatively high rate of civilian deaths at the hands of police off‌icers compared
to similar developed nations. Zimring essentially asks, Whats going on?and turns to the aggre-
gated data collected by various sources across the world.
When Police Kill begins with the argument that police killings of civilians are in fact of notewor-
thy concern. While the data on police violence are limitedZimring estimates that 1,000 Americans
are killed each year by police off‌icers. Given this knowledge, he seeks to understand what provokes
police to kill, who is killed, and what can be done to reduce civilian deaths without sacrif‌icing off‌icer
safety. This is a daunting task given the governmentsf‌lawed reporting systems for off‌icer-involved
shootings. Because of the voluntary reporting nature of the Federal Bureau of Investigation supple-
mental homicide and while the National Vital Statistics System is required, it does not always contain
information on law enforcement involved deaths, Zimring supplements the major reporting gaps by
analyzing two national databases created by news organizations: The Washington Post and The
To answer his questions, Zimring breaks the book down into two parts. Part I focuses on the char-
acteristics and causes of police killings. He f‌inds that the off‌icial estimates of police killings in the
FBI and BJS reporting programs fail to account for about half of all shootings (these reporting
systems include about 500 incidents annually, while the crowdsourced databases from The
Washington Post and The Guardian estimate about 1,000). Zimring f‌inds that many of these
events gained signif‌icantly more news coverage in the aftermath of the Ferguson incident. This is
partly due to the Black Lives Matter movementwhich the author f‌inds support for. His analysis
on the proportions of race shows that African Americans make up 26.1% of all fatal police encoun-
ters, while only representing 12.2% of the total population. Also strikingly, Zimring uses The
Guardian sample to show that only 55% of all police killings involved targets with f‌irearms, and
over 10% involved a target that was not armed with any type of weapon. Noting the growing mistrust
Book Reviews
Criminal Justice Review
2023, Vol. 48(1) 128-136
© 2019 Georgia State University
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