by Bruce Dunlavy
(My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
With yet another police shooting that left yet another unarmed black man (Walter Scott) dead, the seeming barrage of such killings is now a regular feature of national and local news.
In case after case, the sides line up, with one group suggesting that black men are targeted or that their lives are so easy to dismiss that lethal force is not a last resort but an early option. A second group begins to contort the issue to find a way to justify the death: he was resisting, he was running away, he did not obey police orders. Group One calls this “blaming the victim.” Group Two reminds us that if the person had merely complied, he might not even have been arrested and certainly would not have been killed.
The extreme cases might be these: In May of 2014, a man later identified as Joseph Houseman, 63, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, was reported by a 911 caller to be walking around a neighborhood carrying an assault rifle (although, the caller said, it might have been a BB gun or pellet gun). Police were dispatched, and keeping a safe distance, conversed with the apparently drunken Houseman, who refused to give his name and responded with obscenities (including, “Why don’t you f*****g shoot me?”) and rude gestures (including grabbing his genitals). For forty minutes, police negotiated with Houseman from a distance, and ultimately he sat on the curb and put down the rifle, which was confiscated. He was then allowed to go home. Eventually, it was determined that Houseman had not broken any laws and his rifle was returned to him. There is video of part of the encounter here.
Six months after the Houseman incident, Tamir Rice, 12, of Cleveland, Ohio, was carrying a realistic-looking toy gun in a public park. A 911 caller reported this, saying the gun was “probably a fake” and the subject was “probably a juvenile.” Two Cleveland police officers responded, rolling up to Rice in a patrol car, whereupon one officer immediately jumped out and within two seconds fired twice. Rice died the next day. The police department released this video.
Certainly the two cases, though not identical, are similar, and certainly the police responses were not commensurate. There is, of course, another angle to explore. The bar for police use of deadly force is not especially high: the officer must merely make a plausible case that he was reasonably in fear for his personal safety before discharging his firearm. Additionally, officers are not expected to shoot to wound, because a short-barreled police pistol is not accurate enough –especially in such a tense and rapidly-changing situation – to aim for anything but the center of the body. A center-mass shot is designed to stop an attacker immediately, which is the intent when an officer is in a situation calling for him/her to employ a potentially lethal response.
The debate over the justification of shootings of black men by white police officers is usually parsed for each individual case, such as Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, John Crawford, and Walter Scott, and there are certainly both similarities and differences in them all. But the issue of race is central to the discussion. If the justification for shooting a person is the shooter’s “fear for one’s own life and personal safety,” then it is the shooter’s perception that guides it. If the shooter is (as many people, black and white, are) more fearful of black men than white men, does this mean a lower standard of justification for shooting black men?
Before we can start digging in that pit of wretched controversy, let us retreat to a larger question, a general one on which the specifics depend. That question is this:
How often do law enforcement officers shoot white people?
The answer is a shocking one: Nobody knows.
In fact, nobody knows how often officers shoot anybody.
As reported in an investigative study by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, statistics on police shootings, both fatal and non-fatal, are not kept in any systematic way. There is no database that records instances of police shootings, let alone the subcategory of race. In 1994 Congress (without much specificity) directed the Justice Department to provide such information, and statistics are reported by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the National Center for Health Statistics (a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), but there is no consistency among them.
An internet search will quickly yield a plethora of reports, statistics, and speculations, but there is no reliable entity collecting information from all sources with the same reporting criteria. There is no comparability. Some departments report every shooting to several data collection centers. Some report to one. Some do not report shootings unless they are declared “unjustified.” Some do not report shootings at all.
Until there is a specific entity charged with collecting these data, until there is a universal criterion for what shootings and what corollary information must be reported, until there is universal compliance, until there is a mechanism for enforcement of recording and reporting, the answer to the question, “How often do law enforcement officers shoot people in the course of their duties?” cannot be known. And the extent to which a racial component figures into these cases will continue to be a matter of speculation and anecdotal references.
How is it possible that a nation founded on holding government accountable for wrongs against its citizens cannot say – indeed, does not know – how often its police forces kill people? That the question even exists is indeed shocking.