Analyzing Hostile Police Encounters

Chris Smith, Assistant Professor

Most encounters between law enforcement officers and civilians do not result in fatalities, but police officers killed 1,145 people during 2015. Were these fatal shootings predictable outcomes of an already problematic system? In a criminal justice system already fraught with racial and class bias, the answer to that question is unclear. But Chris Smith, a UC Davis assistant professor of sociology, and members of her research team are trying to improve understanding of the broader context of hostile encounters between police and civilians and the sequence of policing events that lead to fatal and nonfatal outcomes. Smith is an authority on crime and inequality, feminist criminology, historical research methods, social network analysis, sociology of gender, and urban sociology. The goal of this research study is to analyze organizational effects, spatial effects, sequence effects, dyadic effects, and racial and class bias in police shootings in the United States in order to contribute to a national conversation that currently has very little empirical evidence.

Official data on police shootings are incomplete, and the U.S. does not have a census of police shootings. Building from police shooting data collection sources — including "The Counted" database compiled by the British newspaper The Guardian — Smith's research team is creating a database that includes detailed information on fatal police shootings and comparative cases of nonfatal police shootings. They are organizing and coding 11,638 news articles collected from daily news searches in 2015 to complete this comprehensive database. In addition to the 1,145 events in which police killed civilians, they have identified 1,266 hostile events between police officers and civilians that did not result in fatal outcomes. Smith and her colleagues believe that their data analysis, funded through a grant from the UC Davis Institute for Social Sciences, will advance understanding of the dynamics of police encounters that exhibit potential for violence.