11 Years of Police Gunfire, in Painstaking Detail / New York Times
copyright ccijax 2006

Published: May 8, 2008

New York City police officers fire their weapons far less often than they did a decade ago, a statistic that has dropped along with the crime rate. But when they do fire, even at an armed suspect, there is often no one returning fire at the officers. Officers hit their targets roughly 34 percent of the time.

N.Y.P.D.'s shooting reports and analysis from the N.Y.C.L.U.
When they fire at dogs, roughly 55 percent of shots hit home. Most of their targets are pit bulls, with a smattering of Rottweilers and German shepherds.

Officers’ guns go off unintentionally or by accident for a variety of reasons: wrestling with suspects, cleaning the weapons, leaning on holsters — even once, in 1996, when a gun was put in an oven for safekeeping.

While the drop in police shootings was already clear, the details were among the myriad facts included in 11 years’ worth of annual New York Police Department firearms-discharge reports that were, without fanfare, handed over to the City Council this week and earlier to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Both groups have been examining the department’s methods of stopping and arresting suspects, sometimes for possession of illegal guns.

The reports cover the years 1996 to 2006, and are used as a training tool and to help officials develop “lesson plans.”

“Patterns and possible hazards are identified” from the statistics, the report adds.

Over all, the numbers show that the department’s use of deadly force has decreased along with the city’s historic drop in crime, and the drop in threats against police officers.

Picked apart closely, the reports provide a remarkable portrait of how the nation’s largest police force, with 36,000 officers, uses its guns. Every shot, from gunfight to accident to suicide, both on and off-duty, is accounted for.

The findings include:

The number of bullets fired by officers dropped to 540 in 2006 from 1,292 in 1996 — the first year that the city’s housing, transit and regular patrol forces were merged — with a few years of even lower numbers in between. Police officers opened fire 60 times at people in 2006, down from 147 in 1996.

The police fatally shot 13 people in 2006, compared with 30 people a decade before.

In 77 percent of all shootings since 1998 when civilians were the targets, police officers were not fired upon, although in some of those cases, the suspects were acting violently: displaying a gun or pointing it at officers, firing at civilians, stabbing or beating someone or hitting officers with autos, the police said. No one fired at officers in two notable cases — the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo and the 2006 shooting of Sean Bell.

In such shootings, the total number of shots fired in each situation edged up to 4.7 in 2006. However, the figure is skewed by the 50 shots fired in the Bell case. Excluding that case, the average would be 3.6 shots.

The average number of bullets fired by each officer involved in a shooting remained about the same over those 11 years even with a switch to guns that hold more bullets — as did officers’ accuracy, roughly 34 percent. This figure is known in police parlance as the “hit ratio.”

“The data shows that the New York City Police Department is the most restrained in the country,” said Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman. “What these reports don’t show are the thousands of incidents where police were confronted with armed criminals, and they did not return fire.”

John C. Cerar, a retired deputy inspector who was the commander of the Police Department’s firearms training section from 1985 to 1994, said the accuracy rate is comparable to that of many other major police departments. In some cases, it is better.

In Los Angeles, which has 9,699 officers, the police fired 283 rounds in 2006, hitting their target 77 times, for a hit ratio of 27 percent, said Officer Ana Aguirre, a spokeswoman. Last year, they fired 264 rounds, hitting 76 times, for a 29 percent hit ratio, she said.

So far this year the hit ratio in Los Angeles is 31 percent, with 74 of 237 bullets fired by officers hitting the target.

In the New York reports, the hit ratio of officers who committed suicide with a firearm — and, therefore, hit their target 100 percent of the time — is included when the overall average is calculated, bringing it up.

Forty-six police officers committed suicide in the 11 years from 1996 through 2006, an average of four a year. The highest number came in 2003, when seven officers committed suicide.

Inspector Cerar credited the department for studying its shootings.

“Everything is down, the number of shots fired by officers is down, the number of subjects that we shot is way down,” said Inspector Cerar. “The number of total times when a police officer fires his weapon is down. Statistically, anecdotally, in any way you put it, the New York City Police Department is not a cowboy department.”