A research center at the University of Alaska Anchorage released a comprehensive report on lethal use of force by police in Alaska over 10 years, the first study of its kind to be produced.
Researchers at the UAA Alaska Justice Information Center partnered with the Alaska Department of Law to compile the report that examined 92 incidents in which deadly force was used from 2010 to October 2020.
The goal of the report, according to one of the report’s authors Troy Payne, was to help create a more comprehensive picture of police use of force in the state to create better public policy around the issue.
Payne, a criminal justice professor at UAA, said one of the first things to jump out at researchers was that more than two-thirds of the instances in which police used lethal force involved people with mental health issues. Equally worrisome, according to Payne, was that roughly a third of incidents involved someone who had told at least one other person they wanted to be killed by police.
The report was not meant to scrutinize the policies and tactics used by Alaska law enforcement, Payne said in an interview with the Empire, but meant to create a clearer picture of what was happening in lethal use of force incidents. The report states the authors take no position on any of the examined incidents.
Source of stats
UAA researchers partnered with the Department of Law Office of Special Prosecution to examine lethal use of force incidents, Payne said. Those reports contained only some of the information researchers sought.
In many cases, Payne said, researchers contacted the officers or suspects and their families involved in the incidents to get a clearer picture of what happened.
Payne noted high instances of people seeking out a deadly confrontation with police. Researchers only determined that to be the case in an incident if a person had specifically said that was their intent to at least one other person.
OSP is the agency that reviews lethal use of force by officers and determines if police acted lawfully, the report says, but the information contained in those reports isn’t necessarily uniform, nor was it designed to gather the kind of information researchers were after such as the race of the officer and type of weapon used.
According to the report, researchers analyzed all OSP case files involving officer uses of lethal force from 2010-2020, covering 92 incidents, 100 citizens and 295 officers. Just over half of citizens died as a result of the incident in which deadly force was used, the report says, with another quarter sustaining serious injuries.
According to the report, there were only three incidents of lethal use of force by police in Juneau during the period in question, accounting for 3.3% of all incidents.
A lawsuit against the City and Borough of Juneau, Juneau Police Department Chief Ed Mercer and JPD Officer James Esbenshade for a late 2019 fatal shooting was dismissed on Dec. 4, 2020. In March 2020, OSP found Esbershade to have acted lawfully in the shooting.
Anchorage had the most uses of deadly force, with 31 incidents (33.7%), Fairbanks with 10 (10.9%) and Palmer with 5 (5.4%). More than half ( 52.1%) of incidents occurred outside of Alaska’s three largest population zones, Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, according to the report.
Nearly every suspect involved displayed or used a weapon, according to the report, and no human officers were killed in the incidents reviewed, but two police dogs were killed and three officers were seriously injured.
A third of incidents involved a person who had consumed alcohol, according to the report, and methamphetamine/amphetamine was the most common drug other than alcohol, involved in more than a quarter of incidents.
The report takes no position on police tactics but does make several recommendations for increased data reporting for use of force incidents by law enforcement agencies.
The report recommends the state create a comprehensive database of use of force statistics based on the FBI’s national use of force data collection. Furthermore, information beyond what is needed for OSP investigations should be collected in the database, the report recommends. Exactly what kind of data elements to be collected should be decided by a broad group of stakeholders from inside and outside the criminal justice system, the report says.
A balancing act
Payne said the report emphasized the need for good reporting and data collection, but acknowledged there is a delicate balance between personal privacy and transparency in government around the issue. Many of the case files reviewed by researchers weren’t uniform, he said, some were very detailed while others contained only the bare minimum of information. Payne said standardizing the information contained in the case files could help with data reporting to better inform public policy.
The Juneau Police Department did not immediately respond to request for comment.
In an email, Alaska Department of Public Safety spokesperson Tim DeSpain said the department routinely reviews all policies including use of force to ensure they are in line with current national best practices.
“Many hours are dedicated to educating our troopers in everything from scenario-based training, use of deadly force, defensive tactics,” DeSpain said. He added that training had been in place during the period covered by the report.
“More recently DPS has partnered with the Alaska Mental Health Trust to bring crisis intervention training to troopers and other law enforcement officers,” DeSpain said.
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.