Police in Jersey shoot more often at blacks, Latinos Monday, December 10, 2007 When a police officer fires a gun in the line of duty in New Jersey, the target is usually African-American or Hispanic. Half the time, the officer's shot misses altogether. About a quarter of the time, the officer is firing at a vehicle being driven toward police. This portrait emerges from a Star-Ledger analysis of every occasion in which a state or local police officer fired a gun at a person during the past year. The inquiry was based on data supplied by the state Attorney General's Office, which now routinely investigates all law enforcement shootings -- whether the officer hits the person or not. The analysis found more than three-fourths of the 47 people shot at this year by state and local police were minorities. Virtually all of the cases remain under review to determine whether the use of lethal force was justified. In most of those cases, the police officer was white and the shooting occurred in New Jersey's urban neighborhoods, with nearly a quarter taking place in Newark alone, the newspaper found. Seven of those shot were unarmed, including one man who was fatally shot and two who were injured. In a majority of shootings, according to the Attorney General's documents, the officer was either returning fire from an assailant or shooting at an armed person threatening to pull the trigger, an analysis of preliminary police accounts found. In nearly a quarter of the cases, police were firing at vehicles being driven at them. Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, said the numbers may appear "racially disproportionate" but cautioned against drawing conclusions until each investigation is completed. "For the most part, we are not talking about discretionary law enforcement conduct," Aseltine said. "In most of these cases, they were responding to crimes that were called in by citizens. So, they were responding to situations where they were faced with a threat that compelled them to act." State guidelines allow police officers to use deadly force if it is necessary to prevent the commission of a crime involving a substantial risk of immediate death or serious bodily injury to the officer or another person at the scene. The Star-Ledger's analysis also found that 76 percent of those shot to death or injured by a police bullet between 1996 and 2006 were African-American or Hispanic, mostly from urban areas. Only a handful of those cases resulted in officers being indicted for unjustified use of lethal force. There is no comparable national data on shootings by police officers in other states. But a recent U.S. Justice Department study found that half of the people killed by police nationwide between 2003 and 2005 were African-American and Hispanic. In New Jersey, the figure stood at 61 percent for those years. The new standard for reviewing police shootings follows a tack similar to that taken by police in the state's most gang-infested cities. There, police investigate every shooting as if it were a homicide with the understanding that the only difference between a hit and a miss is the gunman's aim. The statistics come from a review of 51 incidents -- including the 47 shootings --between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31 where an officer's actions resulted in a person's death or serious bodily injury, or where an officer fired a weapon and missed. The analysis of those incidents found: Police officers missed their target suspect when firing a weapon more often than they hit the person. Six people were killed by on-duty police officers, including an unarmed Asian man suspected of using threatening notes on April 30 to rob two banks in Atlantic County. That case has been referred to a grand jury for deliberations on whether to press charges against the Hamilton Township officer. One officer, Benjamin Vautier of the Camden Police Department, was involved in two shootings, on April 27 and July 24. In both cases, according to preliminary reports, Vautier fired after the targets aimed a firearm in his direction. Both also happened within months of Vautier's brother, also a Camden cop, being shot in the leg while on duty last December. David Jones, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association, said the findings of minorities being the most likely targets of police make sense since urban neighborhoods, where African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to live, see the majority of gang- and drug-related violent crimes in New Jersey. In fact, the most likely murder scenario in 2006 involved an African-American male using a handgun to shoot another black male, according to the Uniform Crime Report complied by the State Police. "They are dealing with an element that is predisposed to violence," Jones said. "They are in an environment where on a regular basis they see the use of force and they recognize it. And, in the vast majority of instances, the cop is shooting back." Dave Klinger, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, agreed, saying: "It appears as if police violence is related with the community's level of violence. More densely packed urban areas tend to have higher levels of crime." He does not suspect race was an issue in the shootings. "It's not a question of the race of the officer or the race of the citizen as it is the situation," said Klinger, whose book, "Into the Kill Zone," included interviews with dozens of officers who shot people in the course of their duties. The newspaper's analysis also found emotionally unstable people died or were injured by police or themselves after officers responded to a call of someone in distress. In one of those cases, Elton Doryen drowned June 29 after being pepper-sprayed by a Perth Amboy officer and running into a nearby pond to wash it off, according to police reports. The incident happened after an officer responded to calls that an agitated and naked Doryen was locked out of his home. The findings come as a panel appointed by state Attorney General Anne Milgram weighs when it is appropriate for officers to use less-lethal force.