After posting my recent L.A. Times year in review in two parts, I received many e-mails. One particularly interesting one was sent by Prof. David Klinger, a professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Prof. Klinger has agreed to let me post his e-mail in its entirety. Here it is:
I just read (with great interest) your year-end post re: bias at the LA Times. I was particularly interested to see Matt Lait and Scott Glover mentioned prominently, for I have a burr in my saddle about those two gentlemen.
To make a very long story short, I am a professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who studies, among other things, police shootings. (In the late 1990s, for example, I received funding from the U.S. Department of Justice to interview police officers who had shot people in the course of their duties). I am also a former LAPD cop who killed a guy back in 1981, so I know a thing or two about deadly force in police work.
Matt and Scott tracked me down a few years back and wanted to chat with me about my take on some data they had on LAPD shootings. We spoke several times (they even drove down to San Diego to meet me when I was out visiting my mom on vacation!) about a variety of issues re: deadly force, including why some cops are involved in multiple shootings even though most officers (about 90%) never shoot anyone.
They wondered if maybe multiple shooters are cops who simply like to shoot people. I explained to them that that there could be a variety of reasons and that the one that most likely applies in most cases is this: some cops simply find themselves in a disproportionate number of situations in which bad guys try to kill them or another innocent (e.g., their partner), because rare events are not distributed in the fashion of a “normal” curve, but rather tend to have some clusters. I even went so far as to show them the Poisson distribution that characterizes rare events and point out that some people are struck by lightning more than once. I also pointed out to them that some police officers are themselves shot more than once during their law enforcement careers (including a friend of mine who did not survive the second gunshot wound he sustained, a contact wound to his forehead), something that cops certainly do not seek out.
With all that as background, I was shocked to read their piece “Frequent Fire” as part of the hatchet job they pulled on the LAPD back in October (“Frequent Fire appeared on 10-18-04). I won’t bore you with the details, but they posited that cops who shoot more than once are a big problem and that only messed-up, psycho, or just plain bad cops are involved in multiple shootings. They did not cite me. They did not present the points I had made to them. They just put out a misleading, incomplete, and clearly biased story.
Just wanted to alert you to another case where the LA Times (and particularly Matt and Scott) laid an incredibly biased egg.
P.S. You can check out my credentials at www.killzonevoices.com which is a
site devoted primarily to the book I wrote on police shootings called INTO THE
KILL ZONE: A COP’S EYE VIEW OF DEADLY FORCE (a copy of which I sent to Scott and Matt about seven months ago).
P.S.S. Happy New Year!!
Prof. Klinger has since sent me some follow-up material that made it clear that the contacts he had with the Times reporters related to this story, and not a different one.
I had hoped to add my own thoughts about the article Prof. Klinger is criticizing, but I just haven’t had the time to examine the issue comprehensively, though I did go back and look at the article. In a nutshell, I concluded that the reporters had some very interesting interviews and anecdotes, and probably had a point that LAPD should monitor frequent shooters. But the piece offered no real statistical evidence to indicate that the problem lay with the officers rather than other factors, such as the environment in which they worked. I think the piece could have benefited from an explanation of the relevant statistics involved. It appears that Prof. Klinger could have provided part of that explanation, and it seems to me a shame that it wasn’t done.
UPDATE: I asked my father-in-law, who was a stats professor, if the statistics set forth in the article could be explained by the Poisson distribution. He said, in essence: no, not entirely — but the article’s statistics nevertheless don’t rule out (or even address) the possibility that other factors would explain why relatively few officers have multiple shootings.
In essence, the article acts as though the statistics prove something, but almost totally fails to look at any control variables. This kind of thing would never pass peer review as a statistics paper. As journalism, it’s hardly stellar — especially given all the time they apparently had to work on the piece.