The police-involved killings that ignited nationwide outrage and federal investigations in the past year saw several stark similarities among the victims: They were mostly young, black, and unarmed.
As for the officers in those high-profile cases, most who pulled the trigger were white. Many had disciplinary records. And a number of them had another thing in common: They were under the age of 30.
In Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson was 28 when he fatally shot Brown in August.
A month earlier, Eric Garner was put in a fatal chokehold by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was 29 at the time.
In Cleveland, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot in a playground last November after Officer Timothy Loehmann, who was then 26, mistook his pellet gun for a real weapon.
And in Brooklyn, Officer Peter Liang, 27, who was on the job for less than 18 months, accidentally fired his gun in a public housing stairway, killing Akai Gurley.
The age of an officer is perhaps the least-discussed factor in a fatal encounter with police, and the maturity of an officer rarely comes up in news conferences after an incident. Age wasn’t mentioned in the Justice Department’s deep, 86-page analysis of Brown’s fatal shooting released last week.
Yet research shows that younger officers are more likely to be involved in shootings, and that the risk of shootings declines as officers age. That may be because younger officers are more likely to be working on the street than behind a desk, according to researchers, but it could also be that younger officers are predisposed to react with deadly force.
Unions for the Ferguson Police Department, New York City Police Department, and Cleveland Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.
The risk of officer-involved shootings drops as officers age, according to a study conducted by James P. McElvain, formerly of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and Loma Linda University and Augustine J. Kposowa of the University of California, Riverside.
The data used in that 2008 study, published in Criminal Justice and Behavior, was collected from McElvain’s department, the 44th largest law enforcement agency in the country at the time. The results match what two researchers found in a 2007 study, published in the same journal, that found that incidents in which officers employ verbal and/or physical force diminished with each year of experience gained by the officer.
Researchers told BuzzFeed News they are not surprised that officers who use excessive, and sometimes lethal, force are young. Studies conducted by academics and police departments alike said age is a factor — one of many, but still a factor — in an officer’s use of deadly force.
Experts who have researched the issue said most people in their young adulthood — from ages 18 to 29 — haven’t developed full maturity of judgment to make, as the Justice Department called it in the Brown shooting analysis, “split-second judgements in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.” (Federal investigators cleared Wilson of criminal wrongdoing this week, calling his account “credible,” but found evidence of discriminatory policing throughout the Ferguson Police Department.)
And police orientations do little to address the emotional needs of future police officers. Across the country, police training includes little to no guidance on the psychological and emotional aspects of using force and stress management, said Maria Haberfeld, chair of the Department of Law, Police Science, and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College.
“We place a great deal of responsibility” on young officers, said Tom Nolan, a retired 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department and current professor of criminology at Merrimack College.
Nolan, who became an officer when he was 22 years old in 1978, said he was overwhelmed when he began the job. “I in no way had the requisite maturity and wisdom,” he said. “I had never held a gun before. It’s a dirty little secret that we’re hiring police officers too young.”
“I was in over my head,” he said about his start. “The tendency for someone that is overwhelmed or fearful is to react with excessive force, and I say that from personal experience.”
Data on police-involved shootings is notoriously incomplete because the federal government relies on more than 18,000 local law enforcement agencies to report statistics for the FBI’s data, and many of them don’t. Both the United States attorney general and the director of the FBI have publicly complained about it this year.
Still, younger officers appear to account for a disproportionate number of justifiable homicides, based on a BuzzFeed News data analysis of FBI and U.S. Census data. This finding comes with many caveats, however. For one, Census data doesn’t distinguish between officers on foot patrol and those at desk jobs. It’s possible that the higher rates are due to younger officers being assigned to more dangerous jobs, while older, more experienced officers tend to move to detective work and office jobs.
The age issue isn’t limited to a lack of experience on the streets. Experts said the problem is deeper — it’s biological. Most people have not matured and developed their sense of judgment fully until their thirties, and police officers sometimes have to make a series of very complicated decisions in a short period of time.
“We all recognize that people in their twenties don’t have the maturity of judgment that people in later decades do,” said Dr. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor in the department of psychology at Clark University. He added that occupations that come with heavy responsibility, such as CEOs, surgeons, and doctors are typically not held by people younger than 30 or even 40 years old.
“With certain professions more maturity is required, and I would think police officers is one of them. You have the authority of the state behind you — the power of life and death,” he said.
Deborah C. Moore, a 20-year veteran of the New York City Police Department and author who spent years researching the psychological and emotional needs of police officers, said most rookie officers, whom she defined as those with five to seven years’ experience, tend to have higher personal issues as they are in a transitional period of their life.
Nolan, who is now an associate professor of criminology at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, said he often looks at the students in his classes, many of whom are 18 and 19 years old, and realizes any one of them can apply to become a police officer.
“They haven’t figured out what they’re doing in college yet,” he said. “Just three months ago they were still in high school.”
In Boston, a person can apply to become a police officer at 19. Despite being hired at a young age, Nolan said the base age for a police officer should be at least 25.
Training usually consists of 12 to 14 weeks of classes on state laws, local ordinances, constitutional law, and civil rights. They are also taught about traffic control, self-defense, first aid, firearms, and emergency response.
A major problem in how police officers are trained is that it’s not individualized, Haberfeld said. An officer’s personal background does not affect the way training is conducted.
“Training hasn’t changed ever, really,” Haberfeld said, adding that following a scandal there are talks of altering how officers are trained, but ultimately plans fall flat.
Overhauling training procedures is time-consuming and costly. In 2014, the New York Police Department announced it would retrain every officer in the use of force — at a price tag of $35 million.
Short of that, Nolan and Haberfeld advocate for a higher recruitment age.
Nolan said if he was police chief, he would prefer to hire someone older, who had previously held another career. For Nolan, it makes more sense to hire a 32-year-old with eight years’ experience on Wall Street, for example, than a 22-year-old with a high school diploma who’s only had one job in his life.
“We can’t keep recruiting so young; they’re not emotionally developed yet,” Haberfeld said.
John Templon contributed reporting.