Sunday, March 25, 2018

Why do American Policemen Kill so Many People?

My home town of Sacramento just made the national (and international) news again. Sacramento has  enjoyed a good run lately: First, the   movie Lady Bird was one of the Oscar finalists. Both the movie and the director were hometown products. Something to be proud of. Then another recent  movie, The 5:17 to Paris, depicts three young men from Sacramento  who thwart an attempted terrorist attack on a European train. Two of them were in fact students at my university, and I met one of them.

And now, the trifecta is complete, except that  Sacramento’s third appearance on the world stage within a year is a tragic event: The utterly unnecessary killing of a young black man, Stephon Clark,  by two members of the SACPD.

So once again, I have to write about this  shameful feature of American society: For some reason, this country sticks out head and shoulders above other comparable countries in the number of homicides committed by cops. (I have written about this several times before. See Americans Killed by the Police and Violence, Racism and Law Enforcement.).

Here are some random comparative international statistics:
   Number killed per year
24 million
0. 4 per million
8.7 million
0.1 per million
36 million
0.7 per million
5.7 million
0.2 per million
England and Wales
58 million
0.04 per million
5.5 million
0 per million
67 million
0.2 per million
83 million
0.1 per million
0 per million
127 million
0 per million
17 million
0.3 per million
5.2 million
0 per million
South Africa
56 million
7 per million
United States
326 million
3.4 per million

Your chances of being killed by a policeman in the US are 5 times greater than in Canada, 9 time greater than in Australia, 10 times greater than in the Netherlands, 17 times greater than in Denmark and France, 34 times greater than in Austria and Germany, 85 times greater than in Britain and infinitely  greater than in Finland, Iceland, Japan and Norway. But you are twice as safe as in South Africa.

African-Americans make up 13% of the US population, but account for twice that proportion (25%) of all the victims of police killings (Police Killing of Blacks).

What gets me is that, every time there is another killing-by-police followed by a national “conversation” about this issue, including numerous editorial comments by  pundits, there is so much EQUIVOCATION. On TV, we see panels of “experts” arguing the various “sides.” Similarly, newspaper columnists  discuss “both sides” of the issue. This happens not just on Fox News, but also on “mainstream” or allegedly “left-leaning sites” such as MSNBC, as well as in allegedly “liberal” organs such as the Sacramento Bee. See for example the March 23 column by  Marcos Breton, a usually very reasonable fellow, titled “Probe Could Clear Police Shooters.” Or Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s statement that he would not “second guess” the actions of the officers who just killed Stephon Clark. To his credit, the mayor subsequently expressed  more sympathy for the victim and for African Americans in general.
But by and large , there is  at all levels of society a  reluctance to speak the truth, to forcefully and unambiguously say that the routine killing of people by policemen in America is a national disgrace which has to change. This simply does not happen  in other comparable countries.  By “comparable,” I mean  advanced democracies  - Western Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan, etc. Only the black community has a clear view of the problem.

The so-called “debate” attempts to identify allegedly  legitimate arguments on “both sides:”
We are told that peace officers are legally in their right when they kill suspects who behave suspiciously. After all, they
“put their lives on the line every day” to protect us, right?
Don’t German and Japanese policemen do the same?

Or the argument that we have more crime than other countries. So? Our crime rate exceeds some other countries, but not all, nor are other countries crime-free by any means.  So this is another pseudo-excuse.

Our system is simply not conducive to change: The Police Department (headed by Daniel Hahn, himself African American), the District Attorney’s office (headed by Anne Marie Schubert), the Mayor’s Office,  the Coroner’s Office and the other branches of government prefer not to rock the boat.
Sacramento is the capital of oh-so-liberal California. This isn’t Alabama, where sheriff Bull Connor used to sick German shepherd dogs on peaceful citizens, or Arizona, where sheriff Joe Arpaio brutalized and caused the death of many suspects.
We pride ourselves on being progressive.

But in Sacramento alone, 16 people have been shot to death by police over the past two years. Some had guns, some had knives, three were unarmed (Sacramento Bee, March 25, 2018). So the problem is nationwide.

Policemen who kill people are never, ever convicted  prosecuted criminally. At the most, they sometimes get fired, as happened after  the killing of Joseph Mann in 2016: He was a mentally ill black man,  shot  dead  by two peace officers who had first tried to run him over. This killing  was declared  “justified”  by the D.A. but at least the two men lost their jobs.

California has a  “Peace Officers Bill of Rights,” which makes policemen’s personnel records completely confidential, thereby  making it impossible to find out whether an officer is guilty of prior misconduct. 

Homicides-by-cop are investigated  by  Internal Affairs. Isn’t this  a joke?  If your child were picked up for shoplifting and the authorities asked YOU to investigate what happened and report back to them, would you turn in a report and say “Yup. She did it. Here, take her and   lock her up.”?
It’s time to admit that there are not two sides, there is no “debate.” The statistics  in my table above tell the whole story. We have a unique problem: American cops should stop killing hundreds of people every year, just like all  other civilized countries..

But maybe we are not so civilized?
One  of the most disturbing aspects of the recent killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento is that it happened in his own HOME!
When  law enforcement is permitted to kill people in the privacy of their own residence, we are verging on becoming a  Police State. There is no safety from the State any more.

© Tom Kando 2018;All Rights Reserved

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