With the violence in Ferguson finally winding down this week, many folks are struggling to make sense of it all. I myself have read so many differing accounts of the events that transpired between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, that I refuse to take a side on that incident, at least for now. What we can positively conclude though, is that the police are out of control in many parts of the country.

Michael Brown’s death aside, we’ve all seen the outrageous antics of the Ferguson Police Department this year. More importantly, many of us have seen the trigger happy nature of police in our own communities, and we’ve seen them get away with murder over and over again.

The police of course, almost never admit to being wrong. Only under extreme public backlash, will they begin to sheepishly admit that their department has a problem, and start reforming their practices. However, that’s not always the case. Some police departments have faced their problems head on, and with amazing results.

For decades, the city of Richmond, California was considered one of the most violent cities in the America. Just a few years ago, the city was among the top ten most dangerous places in America. While the city’s crime rate has seen a significant decline in recent years, it’s still a fairly dangerous city, with a total of 16 murders occurring in 2013. And like any city with a history of violence, you would expect to find an equally draconian police force to keep the population in line. However, you would be pleasantly surprised.

A spate of high-profile police shootings nationwide, most notably the killing of a black teen in Ferguson, Missouri, has stoked intense scrutiny of deadly force by officers and driven a series of demonstrations across the nation and the Bay Area. But in Richmond, historically one of the most violent cities in the Bay Area, the Police Department has averaged fewer than one officer-involved shooting per year since 2008, and no one has been killed by a cop since 2007.

That track record stands in sharp contrast to many other law enforcement agencies in the region, according to a review of data compiled from individual departments.

Many observers and police officials attribute Richmond’s relatively low rate of deadly force to reforms initiated under Chief Chris Magnus, who took over a troubled department in this city of 106,000 in 2006. Magnus implemented a variety of programs to reduce the use of lethal force, including special training courses, improved staffing deployments to crisis situations, thorough reviews of all uses of force and equipping officers with nonlethal weapons such as Tasers and pepper spray.

Whatever they are doing, it’s working far better than some of the neighboring police departments. Richmond isn’t far from several nearby cities that range in population and levels of violent crime. In fact, even cities that are significantly smaller than Richmond have more people killed by police.

In Oakland, population 400,000, 33 people were shot by police from 2008 to 2013, 20 of them fatally. In San Pablo, which borders Richmond but is less than one-third its size, four people were shot by police, two fatally.

In the jurisdiction of cities and unincorporated areas that hire the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office to patrol their streets, deputies shot and killed nine people and wounded six others during that period. Antioch had seven fatal shootings, and six people were wounded by officers. Concord police shot two people dead, and five total.

Concord is an interesting case because they have a very similar population size, and yet their crime rate is far lower than Richmond’s. Granted, the number of people their police have killed isn’t astronomical or anything. It’s just amazing that Richmond’s police force has gone so long without killing anyone in such a dangerous city. So how exactly have they pulled this off?

Perhaps most striking, while Richmond police have not killed anyone, other agencies have shot four suspects, killing two, while working special operations in the city since 2008. While anecdotes of suspects dying in a hail of police gunfire have been reported across the country — the teen in Ferguson was struck six times — the four people shot by Richmond police since 2008 were hit with a total of five bullets, and all survived.

“In training, we stress accuracy and accountability,” said Lt. Louie Tirona, Richmond’s lead firearms and tactics instructor. “We tell our cops from the get-go, ‘Every bullet has your name on it.’”

I find it especially interesting, that even though there have been a small number of police shootings, none have been fatal, or have involved more than one or two shots. Contrast that with other police departments that are notorious for emptying their magazines when danger arises. But cleaner marksmanship isn’t the only factor in reducing the number of police shootings.

More important than luck, said law enforcement expert Tom Nolan, is the culture within a department. If a chief has sent a clear message that instances of deadly force will be scrutinized, you can expect more officers to think twice before firing a weapon, or employ less-lethal means when apprehending a suspect, he said…

…While police across jurisdictions have fairly uniform policies enabling them to use force when they deem there is a risk to themselves or the public, Tirona says the difference in Richmond includes the rigor of training, the emphasis on communication with armed suspects, the thorough review of all force used and the philosophy that force must only be a last resort.

Richmond officers undergo firearm training monthly and role-playing scenarios for disarming suspects four times a year, a higher average than many other departments, Nolan said. The role-playing exercises, in which officers bark commands while holding their guns and make split-second decisions when confronted by armed residents, began in 2008, the same time that officer-involved shootings in the department plummeted. Richmond cops shot five people, one fatally, in 2006-07.

Since then, violent crime in the city has plunged, no officers have been shot, and no suspects have been killed by officers’ bullets.

And most important of all, they quit acting like an occupying army, and started to foster a healthier relationship with the population they were policing.

Richmond police Lt. Shawn Pickett says Magnus changed the department from one that focused on “impact teams” of officers who roamed rough neighborhoods looking to make arrests to one that required all officers to adopt a “community policing” model, which emphasizes relationship building.

“We had generations of families raised to hate and fear the Richmond police, and a lot of that was the result of our style of policing in the past,” Pickett said. “It took us a long time to turn that around, and we’re seeing the fruits of that now. There is a mutual respect now, and some mutual compassion.”

What we as average citizens should take from this, is that most police involved shootings are completely unnecessary. Despite the cries of “officer safety” we hear so often from the media, the cops aren’t in as much danger as they’d like us to think. The ball is entirely in their court when it comes to the number of people they “have” to kill to protect themselves.

When the cops are better trained, face tougher scrutiny, and stop being so damn paranoid about the people they’re supposed to protect, nobody has to die.


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