Domestic Disturbances and Fatal Police Shootings: An Analysis of the Washington Post’s Data

Date01 March 2018
Published date01 March 2018
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Police Quarterly
2018, Vol. 21(1) 53–76
Domestic Disturbances
! The Author(s) 2017
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and Fatal Police
DOI: 10.1177/1098611117735657
Shootings: An Analysis
of the Washington
Post’s Data
Gillian M. Pinchevsky1 and Justin Nix2
Domestic disturbances are often touted as one of the most dangerous incidents to
which police officers respond. Nevertheless, research examining the relative danger-
ousness of these incidents to responding officers is mixed. Recently, media outlets
have compiled rich data on fatal police shootings, which provides the opportunity to
examine police responses to domestic disturbances in a different light. Using data
compiled by The Washington Post, this study explored whether domestic disturbances
that resulted in a fatal shooting were more likely than other fatal shooting incidents to
have involved: (a) a civilian armed with a firearm or toy/replica firearm or (b) a civilian
who posed an imminent threat to officer or public safety. Findings suggest that there
were some, albeit not many, differences in these outcomes between domestic dis-
turbances and seven other incident types. Avenues for future research in this area are
provided, along with a discussion about the availability of current data on this topic.
domestic violence, deadly force, police, domestic disturbances
Law enforcement of‌f‌icers are no strangers to responding to domestic violence;
according to Sherman (1992), ‘‘domestic assault is the single most frequent form
1Department of Criminal Justice, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV, USA
2School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Nebraska at Omaha, Omaha, NE, USA
Corresponding Author:
Gillian M. Pinchevsky, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Nevada, Las Vegas 4505 South
Maryland Parkway, Box 455009 Las Vegas, NV 89154, USA.

Police Quarterly 21(1)
of violence that police encounter, more common than all other forms of violence
combined’’ (p. 1). It is not surprising, then, that police of‌f‌icer responses to
domestic violence have received substantial empirical attention over the past
few decades. One area of research examined by scholars involved the danger
posed by domestic disturbances to responding of‌f‌icers. Although early research-
ers argued that domestic disturbances were the most dangerous incidents for
responding of‌f‌icers, later researchers began to debate this point (e.g., see Ellis
1987; Ellis, Choi, & Blaus, 1993; Garner & Clemmer, 1986; Hirschel, Dean, &
Lumb, 1994; Kaminski & Sorensen, 1995). The perception of danger posed by
domestic disturbances could plausibly inf‌luence the way police of‌f‌icers approach
these volatile situations. Ellis (1987) noted that as a result of long-standing
beliefs about the dangerousness of domestic disturbance cases, of‌f‌icers ‘‘socially
constructed these events in such a way as to justify shooting f‌irst and asking
questions later’’ (p. 326). Still, there appears to be somewhat of a disconnect
between of‌f‌icer perceptions about responding to these cases and empirical f‌ind-
ings (e.g., Garner & Clemmer, 1986; Hirschel et al., 1994; MacDonald, Manz,
Alpert, & Dunham, 2003; Stanford & Mowry, 1990).
Although the debate surrounding whether domestic disturbances are the most
dangerous type of incident to responding of‌f‌icers goes back several decades, it
has yet to be fully resolved. Newly available data can help shed light on the issue.
Since 2015, The Washington Post has compiled data on fatal shootings of civil-
ians by law enforcement of‌f‌icers across the United States. One can assume that if
an of‌f‌icer f‌ires his or her weapon, he or she perceived some degree of threat or
danger—regardless of whether the shooting was legally justif‌ied or not.
According to Fyfe (1986), because of‌f‌icers are required to respond quickly to
incidents, they are forced to determine the best course of action on the f‌ly—a
process he referred to as ‘‘the split-second syndrome.’’ Therefore, examining
those incidents where a police of‌f‌icer perceived a danger or threat to himself
or herself or others allows for a unique opportunity to assess whether such
incidents vary in terms of the level of threatening behaviors exhibited by the
civilian just prior to the shooting. Examining incidents from this perspective
provides a dif‌ferent approach to understanding police responses to—and per-
haps perceptions of—domestic disturbances.
This study analyzed 1,400 fatal shootings compiled by The Washington Post
from January 1, 2015 to July 7, 2016. We explored whether shootings that
stemmed from a domestic disturbance incident were more likely than shootings
that stemmed from other circumstances to involve (a) a civilian armed with a
f‌irearm or toy/replica f‌irearm or (b) a civilian whose behavior posed an imminent
threat to the of‌f‌icer or public safety. We proceed f‌irst by reviewing the literature
on police responses to domestic violence and the danger associated with these
responses. We then brief‌ly summarize the state of knowledge with respect to
police use of deadly force before presenting our analyses.

Pinchevsky and Nix
Domestic Violence: Real and Perceived Danger
to Police Officers
This study’s focus on incident type is driven largely by the heightened focus on
of‌f‌icer use of force, of‌f‌icer perceptions of domestic violence, and the changing
nature of law enforcement’s response to domestic violence over time.
Throughout much of American history, the criminal justice system was
considered ill apt to respond to domestic violence because it was viewed as a ‘‘pri-
vate issue’’ (see Erez, 2002; Fagan, 1996). Moreover, it was perceived as especially
dangerous to law enforcement of‌f‌icers to invoke formal arrest powers (see Ellis,
1987 for a discussion of this issue). However, beginning in the 1980s, after a number
of lawsuits against police departments by women for the failure to protect them
from their abusers, and f‌indings from highly inf‌luential social science experi-
ments—namely the Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment (Sherman &
Berk, 1984)—the police response to domestic violence shifted dramatically, as illu-
strated by an increased use of mandatory and pro-arrest/preferred arrest policies.
Over the past few decades, domestic violence has continued to be a major issue
that impacts American households, which in turn, signif‌icantly impacts the case
f‌low of incidents coming to the attention of the criminal justice system. In fact,
domestic violence accounts for a signif‌icant proportion of of‌fenses to which of‌f‌icers
respond. Based on data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, Truman
and Morgan (2014) reported that victimization at the hands of one’s intimate part-
ner, immediate family member, and relatives comprises 21% of all violent crimes;
approximately 15% is accounted for by intimate partner violence. Recent estimates
provided by the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey suggest that
roughly 70 million men and women in the United States have experienced physical
violence at the hands of their intimate partners over their lifetime; these numbers do
not include other forms of violence (e.g., rape) perpetrated by an intimate partner
(Breiding et al., 2014). Despite the magnitude of domestic violence in the United
States, it is highly underreported (e.g., Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000).
Still, domestic violence-related calls are one of the most common of‌fenses to
which of‌f‌icers respond (Sherman, 1992). Disagreements remain about the best
way for of‌f‌icers to respond to domestic violence cases and about the risk that
police of‌f‌icers face in their response. Although early researchers suggested that
domestic disturbances are the most dangerous types of calls for responding of‌f‌i-
cers (e.g., Bard, 1970), scholars in the 1980s and 1990s casted doubt on that
argument (e.g., Ellis, 1987; Garner & Clemmer, 1986; Hirschel et al., 1994;
Stanford & Mowry, 1990). Specif‌ically, they criticized the methodologies earlier
studies relied upon to come to the conclusions about the dangerousness of domes-
tic disturbances and argued that prior research might have overstated the problem
(e.g., Ellis, 1987; Garner & Clemmer, 1986). For example, critics argued that early
research considered the terms disturbance and domestic disturbance to be

Police Quarterly 21(1)
synonymous, even though the former category may also include nondomestic-
related incidents (see Ellis 1987; Garner & Clemmer, 1986 for a discussion). In
addition, prior studies were criticized for not considering the proportion of inci-
dents involving force against an of‌f‌icer relative to the total number of incidents to
which of‌f‌icers respond (see a discussion in Ellis, 1987; Hirschel et al., 1994).
Conclusions about the level of danger posed to police by domestic disturb-
ances may also depend on the outcome being examined (e.g., assault, injury,
fatality of police of‌f‌icer). For example, Ellis et al. (1993) reported that among a
sample of of‌f‌icers in three Canadian police forces, only 2.5% of injuries they
sustained on the job resulted from domestic disturbances. The authors also
found that domestic disturbances did not rank highest on the dangerousness
ranking (i.e., risk of experiencing an injury) based on the frequency of calls
and time-at-risk; however, these incidents did rank third most dangerous, fol-
lowing arrests/transporting/controlling civilians and...

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