Number of Police Officers Killed by Gunfire is Lowest in 50 Years

The number of police officers killed by gunfire in 2008 dropped by 40% from 2007, down to its lowest level in more than 50 years, according to a report by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.  The report attributed the decline to a new emphasis on officer safety training and equipment.   In addition to increased training, more officers are wearing body armor and using stun guns to protect themselves. The overall number of officers killed in the line of duty also declined in 2008.

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STUDIES: Higher Murder Rates Related to Gun Laws

States with softer gun laws have higher rates of handgun killings, fatal shootings of police officers, and sales of weapons that were used in crimes in other states, according to a study due out in January 2009. The study’s 38-page report, underwritten by a group of over 300 mayors and obtained by the Washington Post, focused on tracking guns used in crimes back to the retailers that first sold them.

Based on an analysis of annual crime-gun data compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the study found:


• The 10 states with the highest export rates of guns used in crimes had nearly 60 percent more gun homicides than the 10 states with the lowest rates. The high-export states also had nearly three times as many fatal shootings of police officers.

• 10 states supplied 57% of the guns that were used in crimes in other states in 2007.

• States requiring background checks for handgun sales at gun shows have an export rate nearly half the national average. None of the 10 highest export states requires the checks, according to the report.

• States requiring gun buyers to get a purchase permit have a lower export rate.
(C. Thompson, “Report Links State Gun Laws To Rates of Slayings, Trafficking,” Washington Post, December 5, 2008; source: Mayors Against Illegal Guns). See Deterrence and Studies.

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Gap Between the Murder Rate of Death Penalty States and Non-Death Penalty States Remains Large

States with the death penalty have consistently had higher murder rates than states without the death penalty.  If the death penalty was acting as a deterrent to murder, one might expect that the gap between these two groups would lessen over a long period of time as states using the death penalty obtained an advantage in reducing murders.  However, the gap has grown larger over the past 18 years. In 2007, states with the death penalty had a 42% higher murder rate than states without the death penalty.  In 1990, the gap was only 4%.

A murder rate is obtained by dividing the number of murders in a state by the state's population. It is possible to obtain a single murder rate for "states with the death penalty" by adding the total number of murders in such states by the total population of these states.  A murder rate for "states without the death penalty" can be similarly obtained.  To see the results of these calculations for each year 1990-2007, click here. In 2007, the murder rate for states with the death penalty was 5.83 and for states without the death penalty it was 4.10, a 42% difference.  The national murder rate in 2007 was 5.6.

(Murder rates from FBI Uniform Crime Report, calculations by David Cooper; DPIC, Nov. 25, 2008). See Deterrence.

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NEW VOICES: Former San Quentin Warden Says Death Penalty "Detracts crucial resources from programs that could truly make our communities safe"

The former warden of San Quentin prison in California, Jeanne Woodford, regrets having taken part in executions and has called for replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole. In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Woodford notes that after each execution, "someone on the staff would ask, 'Is the world safer because of what we did tonight?' We knew the answer: No." The full article can be found below.



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Murder Rate Declines in Every Region Except the South, Where Executions Are Most Prevalent

According to the F.B.I.'s latest crime report released on September 15, the South is the only region in the country that experienced a rise in its murder rate in 2007. The FBI reported that the murder rate in the country declined to 5.6 murders per 100,000 people in 2007 from 5.7 in 2006, and the rate declined in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the West. In the South, however, the murder rate increased from 6.8 in 2006 to 7.0 in 2007, the highest rate among the four regions. The South consistently has had the highest murder rate among the four regions.

The South also leads the country in executions: 100% of the executions carried out in 2008 have been in the South and 86% of those carried out in 2007 were in this region. By contrast, the Northeast has the lowest murder rate in the country and the fewest number of executions. The Northeast also experienced the sharpest decline in its murder rate among the four regions, while carrying out no executions in 2006-08. The complete F.B.I. report can be found here.

(U.S. Department of Justice, F.B.I., “Crime in the U.S., 2007,” September 2008). See also Studies and Deterrence.

2007 2006 EXECUTIONS SINCE 1976
As of 9/01/08)
South 7.0 6.8 921
West 5.3 5.6 67
Midwest 4.9 5.0 127
Northeast 4.1 4.5 4

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Experts from Both Sides Say Data Does Not Support a Deterrent Effect from the Death Penalty

Legal scholar Cass Sunstein and researcher Justin Wolfers recently joined in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post responding to the U.S. Supreme Court’s citation of their work in Baze v. Rees, the decision that approved lethal injection and opened the way to recent executions. Justice Stevens had cited Wolfer’s research as evidence of the lack of deterrence of the death penalty while Justice Scalia cited Sunstein’s writings indicating a “a significant body of recent evidence that capital punishment may well have a deterrent effect, possibly a quite powerful one.” Both Sunstein and Wolfers say the Justices “misread the evidence” to “support their competing conclusions on the legal issue.” They explained the nuances of the evidence on deterrence and the death penalty and how no study on the topic can support a strong conclusion. “The best we can say is that homicide rates are not closely associated with capital punishment.” They added, “In short, the best reading of the accumulated data is that they do not establish a deterrent effect of the death penalty.”

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FBI Report: Murder Rate Falls 2.7% Nationally, But Rises in the South

The country's murder rate declined 2.7% in 2007. The rate dropped the most in the Northeast, and declined in the Midwest and the West, but increased in the South. According to the preliminary Uniform Crime Report published by the FBI, violent crime declined generally by 1.4 percent in 2007 in the U.S. “This report suggests that violent crime is decreasing and remains near historic low levels,” said Peter Carr, Principal Deputy Director of Public Affairs for the Justice Department. (T. Frieden, "FBI: Violent crime down 1.4 percent in 2007", CNN, June 9, 2008).

The overall drop in the murder rate came during the year when the U.S. had the lowest number of executions (42) in 13 years. Almost all the executions (86%) occurred in the South, which was the only region with a rise in its murder rate (+2.9%). The Northeast had no executions in 2007, and it had the largest decrease in its murder rate (-8.6%) among regions in the country. The Northeast continues to have the lowest murder rate in the country and the lowest number of executions of the four regions. See Deterrence.

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NEW RESOURCES: Study Finds Homicide Rates Unrelated to Execution Rates

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) recently completed a study of the effect of executions on homicide rates and found that both states that execute many people and states that execute no one show the biggest decline in homicides (34% and 36% declines, respectively). States that execute few people have the least decline (24%) in homicides. According to the study, “This peculiar result suggests the death penalty is irrelevant to homicide.” The study looked at the effect of the 1,051 legal executions on the 446,457 homicides in the 50 states and D.C. during the 1984-2006 period.

If there were a true deterrent effect, the CJCJ argues, then even the states that execute a few people would have a stronger decline in homicides than those that execute no one. Instead, the data shows that the homicide rates in states such as Texas, which leads the nation in executions, and in non-execution states such as New York, show the biggest declines. This pattern, “strongly argue[s] death penalty and homicide rates are unrelated."

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New Poll Finds Increase in Opposition to Death Penalty

A recent Harris Interactive poll of over 1,000 American adults found that the number of people who oppose the death penalty has increased since 2003. Thirty-percent (30%) of those sampled oppose the death penalty, an increase of 8 percentage points in the past 5 years. The percentage of respondents who "believe in capital punishment" has dropped significantly since 1997, when 75% supported the death penalty.  In 2008, that number had declined to 63%, the lowest number in recent years.

The poll also found that 52% of Americans do not believe that the death penalty deters others from committing murder. Likewise, 95% of those polled stated that they believe that sometimes innocent people are convicted of murder. Among this group, 58% said they would then oppose the death penalty based upon the knowledge that some innocent people are convicted of murder. This represents a strong increase since the year 2000, when only 36% said that cases of innocence would lead them to oppose the death penalty.

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Editorials - Deterrence

Death Be Not Proud

The Richmond Times-Dispatch, a key paper in the Virginia state capital, has long supported the death penalty.  But their recent editorial takes the position that capital punishment "achieves no legitimate goals that cannot be achieved by a life sentence with no possibility of parole."  The paper equates the death penalty with the state "playing God.” The full text of the editorial follows:

Del. Frank Hargrove, one of the General Assembly's Don Quixotes, hopes the umpteenth time will be the charm. He wants to end executions in Virginia, which stands second only to Texas in its zest for capital punishment.

Although there is some slight evidence that capital punishment might deter crime, its overall effect on crime trends is vanishingly small -- and it achieves no legitimate goals that cannot be achieved by a life sentence with no possibility of parole. (Spare us the nonsense about how execution protects fellow inmates and guards from psychopaths. A place like the supermax Pelican Bay prison is the place for them.)

Many arguments against capital punishment are flawed, but that does not make a case for execution. The only affirmative case that can be made on behalf of killing someone instead of locking him away forever is the sentiment that certain heinous fiends deserve to die. Indeed they do; indeed, they deserve much worse than that, and their death is certainly no great loss to the world. But the judicial system does not exist to mete out divine retribution.

Those who believe in limited government also should believe government ought to limit itself to protecting the public -- and ought to refrain from playing God. We long have supported capital punishment. Yet Hargrove sets a challenging example. To put a new spin on an old conservative trope: If it is not necessary to execute, then is it necessary not to execute? The question is growing tougher.

(Editorial, “Death Be Not?,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 22, 2008). See Editorials and New Voices.

The Myth of Deterrence

In a recent editorial entitled "The Myth of Deterrence," the Dallas Morning News pointed to the many reasons why the death penalty does not deter murders: a majority of murders can be classified as irrational acts, and the perpetrators are unlikely to have considered the possibility of a death sentences before and during the crime; those who commit premeditated murder are also unlikely to consider the possibility of capital punishment because it is so unlikely to be carried out. "No rational criminal should be deterred by the death penalty, since the punishment is too distant and too unlikely to merit much attention," the News writes, quoting economist and "Freakonomics" author Steven Levitt.

According to the News, the arguments that the death penalty deters murder do not hold up to scrutiny. States in the South have a higher homicide rate than all other regions of the United States, and they also have higher numbers of death sentences and executions. The News asks, "œIf capital punishment were an effective deterrent to homicide, shouldn't we expect the opposite result?" Recent studies claiming the death penalty deters numerous murders have also found to be "fatally flawed."

The editorial follows:

In theory, the death penalty saves lives by staying the hand of would-be killers. The idea is simple cost-benefit analysis: If a man tempted by homicide knew that he would face death if caught, he would reconsider.

But that's not the real world. The South executes far more convicted murderers than any other region yet has a homicide rate far above the national average. Texas' murder rate is slightly above average, despite the state's peerless deployment of the death penalty. If capital punishment were an effective deterrent to homicide, shouldn't we expect the opposite result? What's going on here?

Human nature, mostly. Murder is often a crime of passion, which by definition excludes the faculties of reason. The jealous husband who walks in on his wife and another man is in no position to deliberate rationally on the consequences of killing his rival. The convenience store robber who chooses in a split-second to shoot the clerk has not pondered the potential outcomes of pulling the trigger.

People overtaken by rage, panic or drunkenness should be brought to justice, of course, but they are hardly paragons of pure reason, and it's unreasonable to assert that they consider the possibility of a death sentence when committing their crimes.

Too distant a threat

Even premeditated killers don't expect to be executed. And for good reason. Statistics show that a homicidal gangster is far more likely to die at the hands of his fellow thugs than the hands of the state. As economist and Freakonomics author Steven Levitt writes, "No rational criminal should be deterred by the death penalty, since the punishment is too distant and too unlikely to merit much attention."

Well, then, just speed up the appeals process, some say. But the appeals process has already been shortened as much as possible without being reckless. This at the same time that a steady stream of DNA exonerations have raised important questions about investigative tactics once thought to be foolproof.

Is it worth the risk of killing innocent people on the unproven theory that it would result in fewer innocents dying via homicide?

This year, this newspaper reversed its longstanding support of the death penalty because the process is deeply flawed and irreversible. Among the moral, legal and practical reasons for our stance is the absence of hard evidence that capital punishment prevents murder.

Some recent studies purport to show that executions actually deter murders. These studies have been analyzed by others and found to be fatally flawed - "fraught with numerous technical and conceptual errors," as Columbia Law professor and statistics expert Jeffrey Fagan testified to Congress. One Pepperdine study touted last month on the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages found that a national decline in the murder rate correlated with executions. But that study links two broad sets of numbers and leaps to a simple conclusion.

Inconclusive at best

The devil really is in the lack of details. The national murder rate has been declining for a decade and a half - in states with and without the death penalty. But the drop has been faster in states that reject capital punishment. At best, evidence for a deterrent effect is inconclusive, and shouldn't officials be able to prove that the taking of one life will undoubtedly save others? They simply have not met that burden of proof, and it's difficult to see how they could.

The only murders the death penalty unarguably deters are those that might have been committed by the executed. But we shouldn't punish inmates for what they might do. Besides, society has an effective and bloodless means of protecting itself from those who have proved themselves willing to murder. It's called life without benefit of parole. In a previous editorial, we called this "death by prison."

Granting the state the power of life and death over its citizens requires something far more solid and certain than mere guesswork.

The Dallas Morning News reversed its long-held support for the death penalty earlier this year because " the process is deeply flawed and irreversible. Among the moral, legal and practical reasons for our stance is the absence of hard evidence that capital punishment prevents murder." 

("The Myth of Deterrence: Death penalty does not reduce homicide rate," The Dallas Morning News, December 2, 2007).

EDITORIALS: "At Some Point, A Death Penalty Stops Making Sense"

The Witchita Eagle recently called on Kansas lawmakers to reconsider the death penalty, stating: "At some point, given the legal problems and the lack of executions, a death penalty stops making sense for Kansas." The paper said the law has cost taxpayers millions of dollars without the benefit of deterring crime. Moreover, the state has not had a single execution since capital punishment was reinstated in 1994, and the "care and caution" warranted to protect against wrongful convictions could mean the state's first execution is more than a decade away.

The editorial follows:

It's hard to imagine that any of the 89 Kansas lawmakers who voted in 1994 to revive the death penalty for the "the worst of the worst" criminals anticipated it would still be unused come 2007. Each year sends more men to Kansas' death row, nine in all currently, but the legal challenges to their sentences continue at a glacial pace. Then there is the cost to taxpayers, averaging $1.2 million each by one tally. At some point, given the legal problems and the lack of executions, a death penalty stops making sense for Kansas.

In the early '90s, the average time between sentencing to execution nationally was eight years; now, it's 16 years. And Jeff Jackson, a law professor at Washburn University, recently predicted that Kansas' first execution since reinstatement of capital punishment could be another dozen years away. If that killer ends up being Gary Kleypas -- the first man so sentenced in Kansas since serial killers James Latham and George York were hanged on June 22, 1965 -- 23 years could have passed since his 1996 rape and murder of a Pittsburg State University student.

That would hardly seem to count as swift punishment, or fulfill legislative intent.

Supporters will point to Texas' eight-year average gap and 402 executions since 1974 and ask of Kansas: What's the holdup?

First Kleypas must be resentenced, as ordered by the Kansas Supreme Court. Another denizen of death row must be retried entirely -- Michael Marsh of Wichita, whose 1996 case was involved in the U.S. Supreme Court's 2006 decision upholding Kansas' death penalty. The appeal of Gavin Scott, sentenced to die for killing a rural Goddard couple in 1996, was heard last week by the state's Supreme Court, where the defense argued that the word "or" in the phrase "cruel or unusual" punishment allows the court to strike down the death penalty law again. Meanwhile, the appeals of some of the best-known killers -- including Jonathan and Reginald Carr, Douglas Belt and John E. Robinson Sr. --are still to come.

The proliferation of murders in Wichita this year -- 37 and counting, compared with 26 for all of 2006 -- casts increasing doubt on the death penalty's value as a deterrent. So do the state's pending capital cases against Edwin R. Hall, charged with killing Olathe teen Kelsey Smith; Justin Thurber, charged in the Cowley County death of 19-year-old Jodi Sanderholm; and Elgin Ray Robinson Jr., facing capital murder charges in the death of 14-year-old Wichitan Chelsea Brooks.

Plus, more complications lie ahead: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that killers sentenced to die by lethal injection, the preferred method in Kansas and 37 other states, can challenge the constitutionality of that method of execution.

There are many other good reasons for a rethinking, including the recent principled argument of Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., that capital punishment is only apt in a very few "cases where we cannot protect the society from the individual."

Care and caution are warranted to ensure that only the guilty are subjected to the ultimate punishment. But as difficult as the 1994 legislative debate was, it should lead to another any day now -- about whether the death penalty, given its complexities and cost, is still worth having in Kansas.

(Wichita Eagle, September 13, 2007).

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