The Washington Post has been tracking lethal force encounters by police officers for a few years now and is back with their latest annual accusations against law enforcement. While they refer to the numbers as “depressing” among other things, the overall figures seem to be holding steady. Some of the details they’ve uncovered, particularly about federal data gathering in this area, might prompt some improvements.
POLICE SHOT and killed 987 people in the United States last year. That is two dozen more than in the year before and nearly identical to the number of people killed by police the year before that. The lack of appreciable change in the numbers is a depressing sign that, though much attention has been focused on this issue in the past three years, authorities are falling short in devising and implementing solutions.
The sobering look at the use of deadly force by police is the result of an unprecedented effort by The Post to track fatal shootings in the aftermath of the national debate sparked by the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, outside St. Louis. The ongoing project, using local news coverage, public records and social-media reports, has logged details of 2,945 shooting deaths. The Post’s compilation has pointed up the inadequacies of the FBI’s record-keeping, which relies on voluntary submissions from police and shows far fewer shootings.
You really have to dig into their data to get a more realistic sense of what’s going on, since the published summary mysteriously skips several details you might think were quite pertinent. (The Chicago Tribune did a somewhat better job fishing them out and putting them in context.) For example, 987 lethal force encounters may sound like a lot, and it’s certainly more dangerous situations than we’d like to see our law enforcement officers engaged in, but how many of them were “avoidable” and did race play a factor? First of all, the number of “unarmed black suspects” (which seems to be their favorite figure) is 19. What they leave out is that it pales in comparison to the 49 unarmed white males that were similarly killed. On a per capita rate that’s still a higher figure for black suspects based on the percentage of the population, but that’s been the case for as long as they’ve been keeping modern records.
Also, look at the flip side of those unarmed figures. Of the 987 who were shot and killed, 919 of them were armed. When you wind up going head to head with the cops and you’ve got a weapon, you’re far more likely to be shot. The WaPo also focuses (for valid reasons) on the high number of instances of people with mental health issues who wound up being killed. 236 of them, “were reported to have been experiencing some form of mental distress.” This says a lot more about our country’s mental health system than law enforcement, particularly when combined with the armed suspect figures. If a law enforcement officer winds up in a confrontation with a crazy person holding a gun, while it’s a sad state of affairs to be sure, it’s also not the time to open up a debate on healthcare. You’re still facing a crazy person with a gun.
The final note I would add is that the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and all the rest of these outlets really need to break themselves of the habit of invoking the shooting of Michael Brown whenever they trot out these reports. (Both papers did it yet again this time.) That story is just about the worst symbol you could reference. The lies fed to the media about that incident, which they eagerly lapped up and regurgitated to the rest of the country were a disgrace. Even one of the WaPo’s own editorial board members was finally forced to publish an article explaining that Hands Up Don’t Shoot was a lie. Much like the vast majority of those 987 shootings from last year, a police officer resorted to deadly force when he was under attack.
On the rare occasions when a cop goes bad, such as with Michael Slager, I call for their full prosecution along with most every other decent person I know. But using Slager as an excuse to tar all, or even a significant number of cops with the same brush is not journalism. It’s slander. And slander of some of the best people to answer the call to serve our nation at that.