The perils of "contagious shooting."

Science, technology, and life.
Nov. 30 2006 2:35 AM

Catch and Shoot

The perils of "contagious shooting."

Fifty bullets fired at three unarmed men last Saturday. Forty-three fired at an armed man last year. Forty-one fired at Amadou Diallo. All by New York police; all cases fatal.

Why so many bullets? "Contagious shooting," proposed the New York Times in a front-page story on Monday. "An officer fires, so his colleagues do, too."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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It's natural to grope for a rational or mechanical explanation in cases like these. But it's not clear which kind of explanation this contagion is. If it's rational, it should be judged like any rational process, and cops should be culpable for it. If it's mechanical, it should be controlled like any mechanical process, starting with the guns supplied to police. We can't keep doing what we've been doing: giving cops high-round semiautomatic weapons because we trust them not to blast away like robots, then excusing them like robots when they blast away.

Supposedly, contagious shooting was coined four decades ago to explain copycat police fire during riots. Once you start describing a behavioral phenomenon as a predictable sequence of events—"post-traumatic stress disorder," for example—people start reading it as an excuse. Seven years ago, during the Diallo case, a lawyer for one of the accused officers pointed out that "contagious shooting" was in the New York Police Department patrol guide. "I suspect that this phenomenon may play an active role in this case for my client," he told reporters.

What makes contagious shooting a handy legal defense is its mechanical portrayal of behavior. You're not choosing to kill; you're catching a disease. In the Diallo era, the NYPD patrol guide explained that the first shot "sets off a chain reaction of shooting by other personnel." Officers "join in as a kind of contagion," said the Times. They "instinctively follow suit," said the Daily News, as one shot "sparks a volley from other officers." On Monday, the Times said contagious shooting "spreads like germs, like laughter." One former NYPD official called it the "fog of the moment." Another said "your reflexes take over." A third told  CNN, "It's sort of like a Pavlovian response. It's automatic. It's not intentional."

This mess of metaphors is telling. Nothing can behave like germs, sparks, laughter, fog, instinct, and conditioning all at once. That's the first clue that "contagious" is being used not to clarify matters, but to confuse them. Another clue is that the same people who invoke it often point out that the number of shootings by police is low and has been falling. An urge that's so commonly resisted can't be irresistible.

Here's a third clue: Prior to Monday, "contagious shooting" had appeared in 25 articles in Nexis. Half of them were about cops or soldiers; the other half were about basketball. Three years ago, for example, contagious shooting "rubbed off" among Duke players; last year, it "spread" among the Philadelphia 76ers. Anyone who follows sports knows that writers reach for such silly metaphors when they have no idea why something happened.

Maybe cops can get off with this defense. But it carries a price. If lethal police reactions really are contagious, then the sensible response is to control them like a disease. As Al Sharpton—who says 10,000 things a year and is right at least twice—pointed out Monday, contagious shooting as an explanation for this week's tragedy is "even more frightening" than malice, since it implies that such incidents will recur. The most famous invocation of contagion in law enforcement, delivered eight decades ago by Justice Louis Brandeis, became a centerpiece of the 1966 Miranda case. "Crime is contagious," Brandeis wrote. "If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy."

How can you control a contagion of police overreaction? By controlling the crucial mechanism: guns. The key number in the Diallo case wasn't 41; it was 16. Two of the four officers accounted for 32 of the 41 bullets, because each of them emptied his weapon. NYPD rules "require that the officers carry nine millimeter semi-automatic pistols with 16 shots in the magazine and the first trigger pull being a conventional trigger pull and all subsequent trigger pulls being a hair trigger pull," one defense lawyer told the jury. That's why the officers fired so many shots so fast: Their guns, loaded with 64 rounds, "were all capable of being emptied in less than four seconds."

Same thing this week. Thirty-one of the 50 bullets reportedly came from one officer's 16-round semiautomatic. One reload, two clips, total mayhem.

This is why Mayor David Dinkins and his police commissioners, including Ray Kelly, originally opposed giving cops semiautomatic weapons. In 1993, when they gave in, they put a 10-round limit on the clips. A year later, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his commissioner lifted the cap. They argued that cops shouldn't be outgunned and would handle the weapons responsibly. It's the same argument the National Rifle Association makes for the freedom to use firearms: Guns don't kill people; people kill people.

Contagious shooting blows that argument away. If cops fire reflexively, there's no moral difference between people and guns. They're both machines, and based on recent shootings, we should limit clips or firing speed to control their damage. No responsibility, no freedom.

Alternatively, we could reassert that police are free agents, to be trusted with weapons and held responsible—not excused with mechanical metaphors—when they abuse them. You can't have it both ways.

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