A rising awareness of police shootings
Incidents such as those are playing out around the nation, inciting fury and anger on both sides of the divide with very little common ground to be found. But it did not start with the Michael Brown shooting this summer in Ferguson, nor will it end with the killing of Rumain Brisbon in Phoenix on Tuesday.
What is changing, though, is the attention being paid to the use of deadly force by police officers. And while much of the focus is on the race of the victims and the officers – the former mostly minorities, the latter mostly white – there is a growing concern about whether or not there is transparency and accountability when cops kill civilians regardless of the racial dimensions.
The violent protests following the decision by a St. Louis County grand jury last month not to indict police officer Darren Wilson was, in the minds of many, one more example of no justice when it comes to officers who kill in the line of duty. A similar decision Wednesday by a Staten Island grand jury in the chokehold death of Eric Garner – caught on tape, no less – triggered similar angry outbursts in New York.
In an editorial, the New York Times condemns the decision. But had either of the officers in New York or Missouri been indicted, let alone gone to trial and convicted, that would have been the outlier. Beyond the racial overtones of the deadly encounters, there is a growing awareness that no matter what the circumstances are surrounding a civilian death by cop or the color of the victim’s skin, the odds of the officer being brought to answer for the incident are stacked heavily in favor of the guy wearing blue.
The Times runs a piece on officer-involved deaths in New York City going back to 1990 and finds the majority of them led to no criminal charges. Earlier this year, CommonWealth reported on police use of deadly force in Massachusetts going back to 2001, a story that has been picked up recently by a number of outlets and bloggers around the country, that found no police officer was criminally charged in any of the 73 fatal shootings and only one received departmental discipline. Around the same time, the Boston Globe also ooked into police shootings, both deadly and non-fatal, and the lack of charges in those. In 2011, the Las Vegas Review-Journal ran one of the most exhaustive investigations into police shootings under the tell-all headline “Always Justified.”
The conclusion in all the stories was that there is a built-in conflict in cases of police use of deadly force. The New Republic’s Brian Beutler says the problem, laid bare most recently in Ferguson and now in Staten Island, is systemic, rooted in the fact that the prosecutors who investigate allegations of police wrongdoing also rely on those officers for assistance in all their other cases. The solution, he writes, is new laws that provide for independent, outside special prosecutors for all cases of alleged police wrongdoing.
There is another underlying issue here, and that is uncertainty about the extent of the problem. When CommonWealth ran the story earlier this year, one of the obstacles we found was that there is no central repository for information on officer-involved shootings. The federal government releases statistics on “justifiable homicide” but the data commingle police shootings with those by civilians, and it only includes those communities that voluntarily report. It is a wall that many reporters are coming up against as they seek to explore the issue.
It is estimated that more than 500 civilians are killed by police in the US every year, but no one knows for sure. Along with proposals for body cameras, civilian review boards, and ramped up police training, perhaps one question should be added: Just how big is the problem?
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