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Unarmed but still dangerous: The facts behind some OIS headlines

We need more balanced and comprehensive reporting of police use of force against “unarmed” individuals

Article reprinted from Force Science News #377

When police shoot an “unarmed” individual, the implication or outright accusation by media and activists is often that the deadly force was unjustified because the subject, without a weapon, was “defenseless” and thus could not have posed a threat.

Now a newly published study by two criminal justice researchers paints a far different picture. Their findings should be shared with PIOs and other LEOs responsible for communicating reality to the civilian world.

After reviewing all reported cases across a two-year period, the pair found that:

  • “When police officers used deadly force during an encounter with an unarmed citizen, they were, in fact, facing an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to themselves or a third person” in nearly 90 percent of the situations.
  • The rest involved “accidental shootings or unintentional discharges” rather than deliberate targeting.
  • Unarmed subjects shot by intent included those who were attempting to disarm an officer, drown an officer, throw an officer from a bridge or rooftop, strangle an officer, gesturing as if armed with a real weapon, keeping hands concealed despite commands and charging toward an officer with apparent intent to assault.

“Being unarmed,” the study concludes, “does not mean ‘not dangerous.’”

The research was conducted by Force Science News subscriber Dr. Jon Shane, a former captain with the Newark (New Jersey) Police Department and now an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Zoe Swenson, a special investigator of corruption matters with the New York City Department of Investigation.

Their findings are published in a small but pricey book titled Unarmed and Dangerous: Patterns of Threats by Citizens During Deadly Force Encounters with Police, available in hardcover and (less expensive) Kindle formats at


Shane and Swenson were spurred into the first-of-its-kind project by a frustrating realization: While the shooting of unarmed individuals is a particularly sensitive flashpoint in the current contentious debate over police practices, the public reporting of these events “often lacks contextual details necessary to make a reasoned judgment” about whether a given shooting is justified.

In the absence of a thorough description of the circumstances, the researchers write, “what dominates the media headlines [and drives protester outrage] is a modern-day story of David and Goliath; an underdog (unarmed citizen) set upon by an establishment villain (armed police officer) in a mismatched contest on an uneven playing field.”

With “unarmed” connoting “not dangerous or threatening,” the offender is “often lauded as a martyr in the encounter,” as if he were “someone walking down the street minding their own business” when “summarily executed” by an “unreasonable, biased” cop. “Unfortunately,” the researchers note, “most onlookers believe that if a police officer is not punished for using force against an unarmed person, then they are not held accountable.”

Hoping to supplant emotional mythology with facts, Shane and Swenson set out to fill the “vacuum of contextual details” about unarmed shootings.


There is no official, comprehensive, reliable database on law enforcement use of force in the US. So the research team turned to an unofficial compilation as their principal resource – the much-publicized but limited Fatal Force database maintained by the Washington Post. This consists of publicly available reports of on-duty, police-related firearms deaths, collected from news reports, law enforcement websites, social media, and other spotty sources.

Checking cases the Post listed as “unarmed,” the researchers found that some of those individuals, in fact, were armed, just not with conventional weapons. These included offenders who confronted officers with a metal-tipped broomstick, tree branches, bear spray, a knife, rocks, and vehicles.

Some 20 cases from the database had to be set aside because they lacked “enough information to determine whether the officer or the public was facing an imminent threat” when the shooting occurred.

In the end, Shane and Swenson were able to isolate and analyze 112 instances in which officers had shot and killed a subject who was not armed with a real or improvised weapon. This group represents about 6 percent of all fatal shootings by LEOs during the study period.


Most of the unarmed fatalities involved males (95 percent), white (40 percent) or black (38 percent), aged 20-39 (64 percent). Regionally, unarmed encounters occurred most often in the south (38 percent) and west (35 percent) and least in the northeast (5 percent).

The actions of these individuals, as documented by the researchers, clearly shattered the myth that they were defenseless and non-threatening when they encountered the officers who killed them.

  • Nearly half were actively engaged in a physical assault on the officer when shot. This most often involved the use of “personal weapons” (hands, feet, teeth, head) and wrestling or struggling with the officer. Second most common was an attempt to disarm the officer. The physical assault category also includes actual disarming of the shooter or other officers of their gun, baton, CEW, handcuffs, or other equipment; attempts to drown the officer or throw him or her off a bridge, roof, stairs, or other elevated surface; choking the officer; or pushing the officer to the ground and then mounting him.
  • In more than a third of the cases, the involved officer perceived the “threat of an imminent assault.” This includes “advancing/charging toward the officer” or making other “threatening or aggressive movement”; concealing hands “during a crime or flight therefrom”; assuming a “shooting or fighting stance” empty handed or with an object resembling or mistaken for a weapon; and reaching where a weapon might be hidden.
  • In a few instances, the unarmed suspect was shot while “escaping or eluding officers using a vehicle, recklessly endangering the public or other officers.”

In all, the researchers tabulated, roughly 9 out of 10 of the “unarmed” offenders were presenting an active or potentially lethal or severely injurious threat to the involved officer or others when shot. Most were not fleeing but were “at least standing their ground against the officer or were not under control,” the study notes. (Those shot accidentally or through unintended discharges comprised about 12 percent of the total.)

“When police officers used force,” the researchers say, “their actions were almost always consistent with the accepted legal and policy principles that govern law enforcement.”


Implicit in the findings is the need for more balanced and comprehensive reporting of police use of force against “unarmed” individuals.

“When the media portray the victim as unarmed and therefore defenseless (without additional context),” the researchers write, that can “certainly influence public opinion as well as [the] legal outcome.” It becomes “easier to persuade onlookers to accept the argument that the shooting is unjustified because the victim was unarmed.” And emotional assumptions “predicated on rumors, limited information, or lies” then overrun hard evidence in the public psyche.

As a case in point, Shane and Swenson cite the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, “where [the] widely held assumptions [that] Brown was unarmed and did not pose a threat to the officer could not be overcome...notwithstanding the factual evidence that Brown physically assaulted the officer.”

When the facts were presented, “a large segment of the population failed to modify” their unarmed-and-defenseless assumption. “Indeed, the objective evidence was a product of a failed criminal justice system and illegitimate, biased investigators.”

When relevant information is “withheld or omitted, it is difficult if not impossible to reach a sound [judgment], which is what happens when citizens are labeled by the media as unarmed during a fatal police shooting without further explanation of the characteristics of the encounter....

“The assumption that unarmed citizens are not dangerous, violent, or threatening is itself dangerous to the lives of officers and the public they are sworn to protect.”

In passing, the researchers make this interesting observation: “The risk of dying from a police-citizen encounter is exceptionally low and an unjustified fatality is even lower.” It’s a fact that medical errors by doctors and nurses “kill many thousands more Americans annually than do the police.” Some contend that “the American medical system is the leading cause of death and injury in the United States.” Yet there is “not nearly the same level of public outcry” about that as about police shootings.

The FSRC was launched in 2004 by Executive Director Bill Lewinski, PhD. -- a specialist in police psychology -- to conduct unique lethal-force experiments. The non-profit FSRC, based at Minnesota State University-Mankato, uses sophisticated time-and-motion measurements to document-for the first time-critical hidden truths about the physical and mental dynamics of life-threatening events, particularly officer-involved shootings. Its startling findings profoundly impact on officer training and safety and on the public’s naive perceptions.