The Guardian did something that embarrassed the FBI in 2015. It kept track of how many people were killed by police.
The FBI director, James Comey, said in October it was “embarrassing and ridiculous” that the government did not hold comprehensive statistics, and that it was “unacceptable” the Guardian and the Washington Post, which began publishing a database of fatal police shootings on 1 July, held better records.
While true, there is a fairly obvious reason why the government hadn’t bothered to keep track of such things. It fulfilled no internal need. Who was killed and why was a matter of concern for those looking in, not those whose job it was to explain to Congress why its budget was inadequate to win the War on Crime. No good could come of it for the FBI, in particular, or law enforcement in general. After all, it would provide fodder for those who don’t appreciate how hard, how dangerous, how critical, their job is. Why give ammunition to your enemy?
But with the Guardian keeping count, and videos to provide substantiation to the claims of misconduct, brutality and murder that had been successfully denied in simpler times, there were facts that could no longer remain hidden.
- By the close of 2015, police had killed a total of 1,134 people
- Black people were killed at more than twice the rate of white people
- One in five fired shots at officers before being killed
- One in five were unarmed when they were killed
The statistics tell only a small piece of the story, but they confirm with objective data that a substantial risk of death exists for black men between the ages of 15 and 34.
Young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers in 2015, according to the findings of a Guardian study that recorded a final tally of 1,134 deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers this year.
Despite making up only 2% of the total US population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths logged this year by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police. Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age.
It’s not that police don’t kill white men, or women, or bystanders, or each other. They do, and every “wrongful” killing, a controversial characterization under the best of circumstances, matters. To each human being, each family, death matters. But there is, objectively, a pervasive systemic issue for young black men, who are killed at a frequency that distinguishes them.
So we’re ready to deal with this? Not exactly.
There remains a substantial contingent of Americans who are untouched by this problem. While they may not favor the needless killing, they also find it easily dismissed as the cost of doing business in America. Sad and unfortunate, sure, but it can’t be avoided. After all, we don’t want police officers to be killed, so they must be allowed to pre-emptively kill at the first whiff of threat.
The paranoia of policing is understandable to such people; the cops are the good guys and the dead black men (as well as the whites) are throwaways. As for the occasional wholly unjustifiable murderer, they’re dismissed under the “one bad apple” rule. In the relative scheme of low expectations, stercus accidit.
The problem, to those who don’t dismiss it entirely, can be chalked up to blame-shifting, where if there is any facet of a killing that shifts any portion of blame away from police, that becomes “the” problem. We’re a simple people, Americans, easily persuaded by faux shows of reform, facile phrases like the “war on cops” or the “Ferguson Effect.”
We grip tightly to any excuse that confirms our bias, eases our refusal to acknowledge that there is a problem that can’t really be ignored. And so we can ignore it. Or trust that someone is doing something to fix it. Or that it’s not a problem we need to lose sleep over, because it doesn’t touch our lives. The problems are pervasive, systemic and intractable. They will not be easily fixed, which means they require substantial thought. People hate to think. People refuse to think when they don’t believe the problem will affect them. People can avoid thinking when they’re told that trusted stakeholders are fixing the problem for them. Whew. Headache avoided.
But as much as the government’s effort is directed toward smoothing over the problem, those whose lives are being touched aren’t helping matters much. The Black Lives Matter movement is no better at thinking than the apologists for cop killings. Rather than engage strategically, which means not acting impetuously under the shallow and counterproductive mantra that because the problem is real, anything done in the name of the movement is justified, and anyone who doesn’t blindly support actions taken is antagonistic toward the cause, they lash out blindly in all directions, from the most serious to the absurdly trivial. They feed the prejudice of their detractors and undermine their credibility and cause.
While there are smart people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, they are still relatively naïve despite their good intentions. But even if their solutions are inadequate, or fail to take into account the depth and breadth of a problem they’ve only first started thinking about, they lack the organization and control over those who do harm to their cause. And like all putatively good causes, it will be characterized by the worst choice made in its name.
We have a problem in America with police. They are quick to harm, quick to kill, and too many of us remain unconvinced that curing this disease is worth the potential risk to our safety. The old police union threat, that if you don’t like the way cops behave, the next time you need one, call a criminal, is good enough for the intellectual grasp of most Americans.
There may be videos, protests, and dead bodies in the middle of the road, but we’re still far away from recognizing the problem and fixing it. The stumbling block is that this requires serious thought on all sides of the issue, and we, Americans, just don’t like to think. This may be one of the only areas where blacks and whites agree: thinking is too hard and gives everybody a headache, so let’s not do it and instead embrace whatever empty rhetoric confirms our bias.