Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Growing Number of Americans Killed by the Police

The media are finally onto an issue about which I have been fretting for several years: the growing number of Americans killed by cops. Have I been ahead of the curve, aware of an emerging social problem which others are only now beginning to recognize?

This is a sensitive subject. I want to tread carefully and present a nuanced perspective. I hope that you read on before you jump to the conclusion that I am a knee-jerk, left-wing cop hater.

No doubt the high-profile killing of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO has much to do with increasing public awareness of this problem.

Of course, there are several intertwined issues here: bad race relations, economic injustice, the ever greater number of weapons in circulation, the public’s rightward move and its growing repressive tendencies (for example,  more  twice as many people favor capital punishment now as  than two generations ago). But today, I want to focus on just one aspect of this complicated problem: the growing number of Americans killed by law enforcement.

When a society becomes more repressive, the agency which is charged with implementing the new attitude is the police. If cops kill more citizens, wouldn’t that be prima facie evidence that a majority of Americans support this? Michael Brown is not an isolated case. It is estimated that the police kill over 1,000 Americans every year. (See Sacramento Bee editorial, Aug. 24, ‘14).

I hope (and still believe) that a majority of these killings fall into the categories of “justifiable use of deadly force” and “suicide by cop,” and that only a minority of the cases are “murders by cop.”

Nor do I know how many of the dead are black or white, rich or poor. I venture to guess that not very many of them are rich white guys. However, the fact that those killed are by no means all black suggests that the problem transcends race.

And of course, who do we call first the moment we face the slightest problem? 911; The police! We ALL do it - conservatives and liberals; black people and white people; We call the police when we get into an accident and when we get burglarized or mugged, and some call 911 when they have a sore tooth. It would be wrong to deny that society requires a robust police force.

However, the growing use of lethal force by the police is worrisome. As a professor of criminology for several decades, I have used the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports assiduously. The report, published annually by the Department of Justice, has been my bible, so to speak. It meticulously compiles and publishes all the important crime statistics for the entire nation, as well as data pertaining to law enforcement, for example the number of peace officers killed in the line of duty. But it does NOT provide any information about the number of Americans killed by policemen. This is scandalous.

The growing violence between the police and the community should be deplored by both sides. Should cops not oppose the growing number of weapons in the hands of the populace? Would it not be logical for law enforcement and the NRA to be mortal enemies?

To be sure, one should not exaggerate the danger to which cops are exposed on the job: In 2011, 72 peace officers were murdered nationwide by criminals in the line of duty. This is a relatively small number. During the heyday of civil unrest in the 1960s, with groups such as the Black Panthers and Weather Underground acting up, the number was more than twice as high, even though America’s population was only two thirds of what it is now. In general, cops are safer on the street than you and me. They are armed and they are trained.

Nevertheless, we see the progressive militarization of the police. Law enforcement in peaceful communities such as Davis, CA are acquiring tank-like armored vehicles and other military gear. Police departments begin to resemble armies of occupation. But given the growing number of weapons in everyone’s hands, I can understand why policemen have become more trigger happy.

Whatever the proximate causes are, the trend is towards more citizens being killed by cops. When this happens in a society, we call it a police state. And in the extreme, it becomes fascism.

But it seems to me that America can only become a police state, if the (white) majority wants it so. The facts that the media pay little attention to this problem and that the government does not even collect or publish national data on the number of Americans killed by police suggest, so far, a callous indifference to this ominous trend, but hopefully not its embracement.

Every single jurisdiction should have an independent civilian review board which looks over the police department’s shoulders so as to preclude whitewashes. “Internal investigation” is an oxymoron. How can an agency be expected to investigate its own alleged wrong-doings?

The Department of Justice should collect and publish data on all police use of deadly force, classifying them into legitimate and illegitimate cases. leave comment here

© Tom Kando 2014