January 20, 2024 

DOJ review of Uvalde shooting, drops in officer fatalities and homicides, Phoenix’s ongoing reforms, and more 


PERF members, 

Today I want to highlight some recent news and a few interesting longer pieces you may have missed. 

Department of Justice releases report on Uvalde school shooting 

On Thursday, the Department of Justice released its much-anticipated Critical Incident Review report on law enforcement’s response to the 2022 shooting in a Uvalde, Texas elementary schoolThe report crystalizes the many failures that occurred and provides dozens of recommendations to avoid them in future critical incidents. Nineteen children and two teachers were killed, with many others injured, in the 77 minutes between the arrival of first responders and the killing of the shooter.  

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin requested DOJ to conduct the CIR, and DOJ and their CIR team of national experts spent 54 days in Uvalde over a year. The team conducted over 260 interviews and reviewed nationally recognized active shooter trainings. The report provides recommendations across areas like leadership and incident command, post-incident response and investigation, communication, trauma services, school security, and planning and preparation.  

The report highlights a core principle since the 1999 Columbine school shooting, summarized by Attorney General Merrick Garland as, in active shooter incidents, time is not on the side of law enforcement. Every second counts. And the priority of law enforcement must be to immediately enter the room and stop the shooter with whatever weapons and tools officers have with them.” 

The other major finding running through the report is the total absence of leadership. There was no recognized incident commander. Multiple agencies responded but no one agency led, and no one leader made time-sensitive decisions. With 18,000 police agencies and the vast majority having less than 50 officers, the takeaway is the importance of mutual aid agreements and training well before a horrific event like this occurs.   

PERF, drawing on the insights and experiences of our members, has issued several reports on managing critical incidents and active shooters, including our 2014 report, The Police Response to Active Shooter Incidents.” Together with this Uvalde report, these are resources every jurisdiction should use to assess their readiness to prevent and respond to these tragic events.  

Decrease in officer fatalities 

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) recently released their preliminary report on 2023 officer fatalities. They reported 136 officers died in the line of duty in 2023, a 39 percent decrease from 2022. The number of firearms-related fatalities dropped 25 percent, traffic-related fatalities decreased 27 percent, and fatalities due to other causes fell 53 percent. The change in the final category was due to a massive decrease in COVID-related fatalities. There were only five officer fatalities due to COVID in 2023, a huge drop from the 74 COVID-related deaths in 2022, 436 in 2021, and 258 in 2020. 

Decrease in homicides 

It’ll be a while before we have national crime statistics, but we have early indications that homicides fell substantially last year. According to AH Datalytics, which collects data from more than 200 cities as it’s released, available data shows a 12.2 percent decrease in homicides in 2023. (They do not have year-end data for all cities.) And the Major Cities Chiefs Association found a 10.7 percent drop in homicides among its U.S. agencies over the first nine months of the year. 

This is very encouraging news. I hope it’s a sign that homicide and other violent crime rates are dropping back down to 2019 levels — and even lower! We will never be able to settle on a single, definitive cause of the rise in homicides and subsequent drop over the past several years, but I think much of it is due to many parts of the justice system shutting down during the pandemic. Courts, jury trials, detention activity, and police-community engagement were all curtailed, and consequently there was little accountability for repeat offenders. I think we’re now seeing the results of those institutions fully functioning again. 

Phoenix seeks recognition of reforms ahead of potential consent decree 

Last week the Phoenix Police Department released a report outlining reforms they’ve made over the past two years while under investigation by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. In an accompanying letter to the Justice Department, an attorney representing PPD asked DOJ to negotiate a technical assistance letter with the city that commits PPD to continue the reforms in progress.  

When DOJ issues its findings, it will enter into a negotiation with Phoenix officials about how to proceed. This will be a critical moment, as those negotiations will set the course of reform for years to come. Consent decrees bring both needed resources and cumbersome monitoring; how could an agreement incentivize both sides to make the reform process more streamlined, timely, and therefore more effective for the city and DOJ? 

Increase in traffic fatalities 

Last weekend the New York Times Magazine published an extensive piece on traffic fatalities in the United States. “From 2020 to 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has since calculated, the number of crashes in the United States soared 16 percent, to more than six million, or roughly 16,500 wrecks a day,” the Times wrote. “The fatality figures were somehow even worse: In 2021, 42,939 Americans died in car crashes, the highest toll in a decade and a half. Of those deaths, a sizable portion involved intoxicated or unrestrained drivers or vehicles traveling well in excess of local speed limits.” 

You are all probably well aware of this problem, but I’m glad to see it’s getting more attention. The good news is that the latest data show things seem to be reverting towards where they were in 2019, as they are with homicides and officer fatalities. NHTSA estimates that traffic fatalities were 3.3 percent lower in the first half of 2023 as compared to the first half of 2022.  

If you’re interested in more of my thoughts on the link between traffic safety and traffic enforcement, see the column I wrote on the topic last May. 

Drug decriminalization in Oregon 

This week the New Yorker took a lengthy look at Measure 110, an Oregon ballot measure that went into effect three years ago. “Approved by fifty-eight per cent of voters, it made Oregon the first state to decriminalize possessing small amounts of illicit drugs,” the piece explains. “It also funnelled hundreds of millions of cannabis-tax dollars toward addiction treatment, housing, peer support, and harm reduction.” 

The piece includes interviews with police, treatment workers who think police have a role in responding to addiction, and treatment workers who don’t think police have a role to play. There has been backlash to the measure in Portland and elsewhere, and efforts are underway to reform or repeal it. 

This issue has recently received attention from other news outlets as well, including CBS News and the New York Times. And other jurisdictions are taking another look at drug policy. This week a committee of the Washington, D.C. City Council approved a crime bill that includes a provision allowing police to declare “drug-free zones.” (The full Council will consider the bill later this month.) Police would have enhanced powers for five days in these zones, enabling them to address what the mayor has called “open-air drug markets.” Police had this capability from 1996 to 2014, but the D.C. Council repealed the law after the D.C. attorney general raised concerns that it may not have been constitutional. The Washington Post supports reviving this provision. It’s quite astonishing to see how quickly D.C. is pivoting as it tries to turn the corner on its significant increase in homicides. 

Google changes how location data is saved 

The Washington Post recently published a piece about a change Google made to its location data that will affect police. In the past, Google Maps location history data was stored by Google, so the company could provide that information to law enforcement with a warrant. As of last month, Google is now storing that data on phones themselves, so the company will not have access to that information and therefore will not be able to provide it to law enforcement.  

Police have found this information useful. “Geofence warrants became popular very quickly for law enforcement in the past 8 years because they could possibly pinpoint someone at or near the scene of a crime,” the Post wrote. “In the first half of 2023, Google said it received more than 63,000 requests for disclosure of user information in the United States, covering 110,000 accounts, and handed over at least some data 85 percent of the time.” The data was particularly useful when investigating the January 6th rioters. 

There are multiple cases currently in federal district courts, seeking, on Fourth Amendment grounds, either to suppress evidence obtained through geofence technology or to define personal location data as a user’s private data. 

Police will still be able to get a warrant for cell tower data, but they had been getting far more accurate data from Google. We’re holding a meeting on carjacking in Washington, and location data like that previously provided by Google can be critical in solving these crimes. 

Criminologist Richard Rosenfeld passes away 

Finally, I want to recognize the recent passing of University of Missouri-St. Louis Criminology Professor Richard Rosenfeld at age 75. Professor Rosenfeld was an academic who made the extra effort to provide practitioners with usable information, most recently working as a member of the Council on Criminal Justice to provide regular updates on violent crime trends.  

I asked Charles Wellford, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, for a few thoughts on Professor Rosenfeld’s contributions to the profession. This was his response: 

“Ric’s major research contributions were his careful analysis of crime trends and his work (with Steven Messner) explaining how institutional factors influenced those patterns. For this work he received the highest honor bestowed by the American Society of Criminology, the Edwin Sutherland Award. However, his contributions went well beyond this because he was committed to seeing that the public and justice officials were able to access and understand his and others’ works. His public criminology was influential in making sure those making and influencing public policy understood how they could use the results of rigorous research. He also provided his services to countless agencies across the country, usually done pro bono. His commitment to excellence in research and informed crime policy established him as one of the leading voices in the discussions about how we could have a safer and more just society.” 

Ric was an invaluable asset to PERF whenever we needed to know the extent and nature of crime increases or decreases. In his humble, professional way, he was terrific. He will be dearly missed. 

Have a wonderful weekend!