Shoot First, Ask Questions Later
During the past 30 days, an average of three people were shot to death by police officers each day in the United States. It was a particularly bloody month. For all of 2015, the average number of people shot to death by police officer was 2.7 per day.
As if that were not bad enough, as of the end of August, more than 80 police officers were killed in the line of duty, 23 by non-accidental gunfire. In the past several days, at least two officers were shot to death, one in Houston for no obvious reason other than he wore the uniform and badge of a law enforcement officer, the other responding to a call about three suspicious men in Fox Lake, Illinois.
The number of civilian shootings is updated daily on a website maintained by The Washington Post. As of the close of business on Sept.1, the tally of those shot dead by police officers was 662. Of these, 25 were unarmed black men. Most were Caucasian, and many appear to have been engaged in conduct suggesting mental illness.
The data on police killed in the line of duty is also updated daily, and can be found online at the Officer Down Memorial Page. (As of this writing, this page had not been updated to include the Houston and Fox Lake shootings, so peg the total number of police officers killed in the line of duty at 84, 25 of which were by non-accidental gunfire.)
I encourage you to linger for a while on both pages. The Post, in particular, provides a thumbnail account of the circumstances leading to the death of a civilian. Despite the comprehensive crime statistics kept by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on crimes of all sort throughout the United States, there is no federal database on police violence. It took a private news organization to make that effort. The Post relies on general press reports and public records. Its totals are the best estimate we have.
When I first stumbled on the Post page, I thought it was satire. The numbers seemed too high, exaggerated. Yes, this is a year in which police violence is much in the news. But the cases that have captured the airwaves involve deaths of young men of color. They are but the tip of an iceberg, it turns out.
The Post reports that 326 of the shooting victims were white, 169 black and 104 Hispanic. Men are far more often killed than women. Some 520 victims were armed with a deadly weapon; 23 victims possessed toy weapons. Finally, 174 victims showed signs of mental illness at the time they were shot. Men 18 to 44 years old were at highest risk of being killed.
Reading the sketches of those killed is grim work.
Consider Sunday, Monday and mid-day Tuesday (when this column was written) of this week:
September 1, Bluefield, West Virginia, an as yet unnamed man was shot and killed during a bank robbery, while exchanging gunfire with police.
August 31, Loveland, Colorado, an as yet unnamed man was shot and killed by police officers who responded to a call that a man had thrown a bicycle into a public roadway. When police arrived, the man fled into a restaurant and held a patron hostage.
August 30, Cushing, Oklahoma, Shawn Hall, 20, was killed after police responded to a trespassing complaint. He was suspected of pointing a gun at two people. When police officers ordered him to drop his gun, he refused.
August 30, Tuscon, Arizona, David Leon, 40, was suspected of committing a residential burglary. Officers saw him brandishing a gun as they tried to question him.
The Post report does not yet include the shooting of Gilbert Flores, 41, who stood with his hands raised in the air as officers responded to a domestic violence call in San Antonio, Texas.
Connecticut has had one police shooting this year. Fifty-three-year-old Christopher Anderson was killed in Bolton on August 15, after a high-speed chase. He was a suspect in a bank robbery, and, according to the Post, was armed with a box cutter.
There’s little reason to doubt that more than 1,000 people will be shot dead by police officers this year, just as there is little doubt that more police officers will be shot and killed.
What in the world is going on?
It would be helpful to have comparative data from previous years to determine whether the streets are now more violent. It may just be that we are now paying more attention to police violence and violence directed against police. That law enforcement itself never bothered, and still doesn’t bother, to keep comprehensive national data on police violence is shameful. The FBI can report the number of car thefts, but not those shot dead?
I know we can’t inoculate against ourselves against the plague of handguns besieging us. We’ve armed cops and trained them to shoot first and ask questions later when they believe they are faced with immanent harm. And every kid, every angry crackpot, who wants a gun can get one. Guns are so ubiquitous that officers have killed almost two-dozen people carrying toy weapons.
Even so, I can’t help but wonder whether our easy access to firearms explains why so many people are killed by police officers, and why so many police officers are killed in the line of duty. Other countries with less permissive gun laws don’t bleed as red as we do.
We need to move the debate about police violence outside the box it inhabits. This isn’t just a question of black lives mattering, or of cop lives mattering. We’re killing the mentally ill, white folks, black folks, Hispanics folks.
Perhaps violence is the American way. It certainly looks that way reading these disturbing reports. Is it possible to provide officers with better training? Is it necessary that they shoot to kill quite so often? Or is all this death inevitable in a country that insists that each and every one us has a God-given right to arm ourselves to the teeth?