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The Black Record: Why we don’t know how often police kill

Rasheed Shabazz, former communications fellow, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society | October 17, 2014

In Killing Them Softly, comedian Dave Chappelle explained how fearful he was to call the police when someone broke into his house. Now why would someone in a free country like America be afraid to call the police to their own home if they were the victim?

Although a modest home, the house was too nice, Chappelle joked, “and they’d never believe I lived there.” He then imitated a white officer attacking him and sprinkling crack cocaine on his Black body as a cover-up.

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While that fear and scenario may seem strange to some, the reality of police terror is all too familiar to Black folk and other oppressed peoples in the United States. Yet many remain unconvinced that police brutality plagues our society due to their own biases. Skeptics argue reports of police brutality are exaggerated and sensationalized, and extreme force is justified to control crime. The lack of ‘evidence,’ or complete national statistics also makes this epidemic hard to prove.

Long before Michael Brown’s body was left for hours to bleed dry on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, Black people rang the alarm on racial profiling, the increased militarization of law enforcement, and being “staggered by the winds of police brutality” as Black bodies swung on trees like strange fruit.

Due to protests surrounding the August shooting by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, and the subsequent heavy-handed response by paramilitary police, issues of racial profiling and police terrorism have re-entered the national debate in a way not seen since the filmed beating of Rodney King by LAPD in 1991.

Police Brutality: From Denzil Dowell to Michael Brown

The Black Panther Party (for Self-Defense) formed in Oakland in 1966 in response to police repression. The Panthers demanded an “We Want An Immediate End To Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People.” The first issue of The Black Panther newspaper featured an investigation into the killing of Denzil Dowell by deputies in North Richmond. Oakland Police have shot and killed other young Black men like Lil Bobby Hutton (1968), Melvin Black (1979), Gary King, Jr. (2007). In Berkeley, police killed Black women like Anita Gay (2008) and Kayla Moore (2013). Earlier this year, two recent Black UC Berkeley graduates were attacked simply for “walking while Black.”

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Police officers shot and killed survivors seeking food, shelter and water.

Stolen Lives. Clockwise from bottom left: Oscar Grant, Aiyanna Jones, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride and Eric Garner were African Americans who were shot and killed while unarmed

Stolen Lives. Clockwise from bottom left: Oscar Grant, Aiyanna Jones, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride and Eric Garner were African Americans who were shot and killed while unarmed

On January 1, 2008, Oscar Grant was shot in the back by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle while he laid face down on the Fruitvale BART platform. If it not for fellow passengers watching the cops with their camera phones – and the film Fruitvale Station – we might not know Oscar Grant’s name. Without massive protests, Mehserle would never have been arrested. Two other Black men – Adolph Grimes or Robbie Tolan – were attacked within 24 hours of Oscar, but their stories are less known, though no less important.

The groom Sean Bell was shot by undercover New York cops the night before his wedding. Seven-year-old Aiyanna Jones was shot in the head during a “no-knock” warrant at the wrong home in Detroit, during filming of First 48. And Atlanta police shot and killed 92-year-old grandmother Kathryn Johnson during a botched drug raid.

There are countless other Stolen Lives whose names we do not know.

Is Police Brutality on the Rise?

Is Police Brutality on the Rise?

The recent assassination of Michael Brown by was no isolated incident. Weeks before, NYPD – of “stop and frisk” fame – choked Eric Garner to death with his dying words: “I can’t breathe.” His filmed execution looked like a scene from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Days earlier, police in Ohio killed John Crawford inside a suburban Wal-Mart for holding a BB gun he’d picked up on a shelf inside the same store.

And just as the Richmond, California police department was touted for having no fatal officer-involved shootings since 2007, police shot and killed unarmed Richard Perez, III in September.

It’s not an exaggeration when activists charge genocide. Again. With all the recent media attention police brutality, you may wonder: is police brutality really on the rise or if communications technology has made documenting police use of force easier.

‘Operation Ghetto Storm’

In her book, No Doubt: The Murders of Oscar Grant, journalist Thandisizwe Chimurenga notes that despite the prevalence of state-sanctioned violence, data on police killings is incomplete.

The Stolen Lives project does exist, but has not been updated since 2007. There is also a Wikipedia “List of killings by law enforcement in the United States.”

While we ask, “How many Black Boys have to Die?” we must also ask: How many people are killed, tased or attacked by police every year and why?

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“Every 28 hours” a Black person is killed in the U.S. by law enforcement or someone protected by law, according to “Operation Ghetto Storm.”

Following the murder of Trayvon Martin by self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, in 2013 the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) released the groundbreaking report: “Operation Ghetto Storm: 2012 Annual Report on the Extrajudicial Killing of 313 Black People.” The report reveals the “deadly impact of systemic racism in the U.S.” and uses investigative journalism to contextualize the shootings, often justified by police and the stenographers posing as journalists who parrot them.

“Every 28 hours in 2012 someone employed or protected by the US government killed a Black man, woman, or child!” the MXGM report begins. These “outrageous rates of extrajudicial killings” would be condemned elsewhere in the world. “The same outrage inside the U.S. also demands immediate action.” This report only covered the year 2012.

The MXGM report was recently bolstered when public interest investigative journalism organization ProPublica published a staggering multi-year analysis of the deadly force in the United States, in black and white.

Analyzing federally collected data on police shootings, journalists found the likelihood of young Black males being shot by police was 21 times greater than for their white counterparts. The analysis of who gets killed, by whom, and for what purported reasons suggest police in the United States are still at war against Black America. However, the federal data leaves much to be desired. Absent a national police force, there are over 17,000 police agencies in the United States. Many never file the voluntary reports and many do so inconsistently. Thus, the FBI data is incomplete at best, flawed at worse. The data we have only shows the minimum.

‘Post-Racial’ Horrors

MXGM’s effort is not without precedent. Pioneering journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett crusaded against extra-legal violence at the turn of the 20th century. In 1892, she published the pamphlet, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” She documented the atrocities as she debunked the lies used to justify the lynching of Black men.

The Chicago Tribune and the Tuskegee Institute soon followed with their own annual tabulations of lynching statistics. In 1895, Wells published “The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States,” using the Tribune statistics and additional field reporting to uncover the truths behind lynch law.

In the 1930s, the NAACP would hang a flag out of its window to raise awareness to lynching.

In the 1930s, the NAACP would hang a flag out of its window to raise awareness to lynching.

When asked by friends how they could stop the shootings, hangings, and torture Black people, Wells always answered: “Tell the world the facts.”

While data on the deaths of fallen officers is readily available, no reliable and valid federal data exists documenting use of force by those officers have sworn to protect and serve.

The grassroots activism of Wells, the October 22 Movement, MXGM, and regular people–who under imminent danger film police–demonstrate the need for reliable quantitative and qualitative data.

Assessing the Damage

There are national statistics for car accidents, shark attacks, sexual assaults – albeit poorly investigated and enforced – and even the number of pigs living on this nation’s farms, yet no one knows how often police shoot people each year. And we know even less about other uses of force, like phone book interrogations, Taserings, and beatings like that of Marlene Pinnock by a California Highway Patrol officer this summer are routinely swept under the rug. Police terrorism is not a case of a few bad apples, but systemic dehumanization.

Having accurate data on police use of force could answer frequently asked questions: How often does use of force occur and where? Exactly how often do police shoot unarmed Black men? Which weapons were used and under what circumstances? More importantly, what can be done to eliminate officer-involved shootings and reduce use of force? Not to mention ways we can maintain officer safety, as well as restore trust in law enforcement?

Should Black parents buy their children bullet proof vests to protect their dreams?

Attorney General Eric Holder’s civil rights investigation into Ferguson must be expanded.  The White House inquiry into police receiving more military-gear weapons is important. So is the need for more comprehensive data.

Hopefully, police and their supports will welcome this opportunity to increase trust. Children shouldn’t need bulletproof vests!

Local police forces should be required to report use of force opposed to voluntary submissions. In those cases where local police receive federal funds compliance should be mandatory. If Los Angeles School police want to keep those grenade launchers and rifles, they have to report. Those departments that fail to comply should be disarmed and disbanded. Compliance could require congressional action, but it is well warranted.

Many of the many police agencies are small and may lack capacity to collect and report data, but leveraging the resources of academic and research institutions could alleviate this obstacle. Research groups do exist, like the Police Executive Research Forum, and the libertarian Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project. Similar efforts have been attempted, but depend on media reports as sources, which often legitimate police violence.

Instead of not reporting use of force, we hope law enforcement would not have any use of force encounters to report. Open data on police use of force is not the cure, but one step towards eliminating violence in our society, improving public health, and protecting human rights.

If they gun me down today and sprinkle crack on me tonight, they may come for you in the morning.

And no one would even know.

Rasheed Shabazz is the author of “Police the Police: Melvin Black, Oscar Grant, and the Struggle for Civilian Oversight of Police in Oakland, California, 1979-2009.”

Comments to “The Black Record: Why we don’t know how often police kill

  1. Brown and Garner Killers: Cases of Police Physical Dis-Qualification?

    Lilliput Island of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels: That was what the two diminutive policemen out of the four involved in subduing Garner reminded me. The least “physically” qualified copita could only contribute by going after the most vulnerable and safe part of his Gulliver’s anatomy – the windpipe. It was the only part he could contribute, while the “men” handled manhandled him. Incidentally, policing is the only contact profession where size matters the most. Nonetheless, the Lilliputian has every right to be in the force that does not exclude anyone irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and, in his case, height and physical qualification.

    The Vatican City Swiss Guards have to be at least 5’ 9’’ tall, aged between 19 and 30; thus, the emphasis is physical strength to effectively perform their duties. Police academies in America usually require an applicant to be 5’ 7’’ tall, and 140 to 180 pounds in weight. However, it is one thing to qualify for the academy, and different story when it comes to apprehending a suspect in “tough” parts of a city. The problem is complicated by the multiracial and multiethnic society like America, with a gentle giant from Birmingham, AL, and a pint size lad of Vietnamese descent in downtown St. Paul, MN.

    Although the minimum height requirement to join the military is lower, about 4’10’’ for females and males, the nature of their mission is somewhat different: A military fellow goes after an obviously armed nameless foreigner located at a distance; a cop goes after unarmed, or covertly armed, namable and identifiable fellow citizen. Whereas the ultimate goal of a soldier is to kill, the manifest mission of a policeman is to prevent death. Preserving life of one’s own is physically and emotionally more taxing than taking out the life of the indifferent “other.”

    Unfortunately, some of the members of the police forces are not physically qualified to face suspects of Brown’s and Garner’s size of any race or ethnicity. And like a cornered black mamba, a scared diminutive cop with a badge and a gun (snake’s poison) is the most dangerous organism in that particular space and time frames.

    I don’t know about you, but if I face a short cop with probable Napoleonic Complex, I will hit the ground first, and ask questions later. I can risk arguing with a cop of my size and expect to come to some understanding. Not with a Lilliputian!

    Although equal-employment opportunity policy ought to be applied in virtually every profession, it appears it is not applicable when it comes to policing. It is the most contact of “sports.” As such, I would rather deploy Women to the Badlands of Kandahar (Afghanistan), and Men to the streets of Harlem.

    NYC Mayor suggested retraining could solve the problem. He is partly right. What he didn’t say is that training an all-rounded policeperson could take even longer than training a doctor, probably nine years, instead of a doctor’s seven — or thereabout. A doctor deals with a person’s body. A cop deals with the world around a person’s body – from internal organs to interpersonal or person-property interactions.

    Standard course in police academies, as listed in the “Regular Basic Course (RBC), range from 01: Leadership, professionalism and ethics, via criminal justice, economic crimes, arrest and control, to 43: Emergency Management. Many more courses are needed in addition to the current ones; they include:

    i). Human anatomy and physiology (body parts, organs and vulnerabilities)
    ii) Physical Anthropology (race-specific characteristics – from Irish to Laotian)
    ii) Sociology (formal and informal groups, behaviors, dynamics and deviant types)
    iii.) Cultural Anthropology (Cultural and sub-cultural/gang behavior)
    iv) Linguistic Anthropology (verbal and nonverbal communication, bad gestures)
    iv) Psychology (thought patterns of various individuals and groups
    v) Logic (logical and illogical reasoning, explanations, and behaviors)
    vi) Gender studies (male and female mind-sets, perception of reality)
    vii) And on, and on.

    Then again, whom am I kidding!? What we have witnessed in Ferguson and New York are symptoms of a larger societal problem – lack of true democracy from bottom to the top. Neither practical physical qualifications, nor enhanced police training, would solve the problem on long-term basis.

    As suggested in my book, An African Student in Russia, all political organizations from the community level to Congress and executive branch need to replicate the gender composition of a family unit – male and female equal participation. In essence, there ought to be a balanced contribution of both the “fathers” and “mothers” to prevent crime against any individual regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion and other bases of social divisions — victimizers and victims of police brutality included. Progesterone is needed at all levels of decision making and action to create a needed balance between masculine rational real politicking and feminine sensitivity.

    Hopefully, a female president (which seems unlikely in the current definition and consciousness of democracy) would set the democratization process in motion – from top to bottom. Prevailing social and related problems would henceforth wither away slowly, but surely. Not only at home, but also abroad.

    — Onesphor Kyara

  2. At least 870 people have been killed by U.S. police since January 1, 2014.
    At least 1,623 have been killed since May 1, 2013.
    Source: Police reports via news reports posted to “Killed By Police” on Facebook.

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