The numbers are hard to believe, even if the source of them, The Washington Post, is highly credible. As of August 10, 2015, 598 people have been shot and killed by police officers in the United States during 2015 alone. That’s an average of almost 2.7 people killed each and every day.
What’s going on?
The Post deserves credit for collecting the data. The information comes from the reports of other journalists, reporting from Post reporters and public records. (You can find it yourself, updated daily, online at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings/)
The narrative that has captured the airwaves is one of police violence directed at unarmed black men. Just this week, Ferguson, Missouri, reignited on the one-year anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown. By week’s end, shots had been exchanged between citizens and cops, and a state of emergency declared.
But police violence against unarmed men of color is but the tip, and a small tip at that, of a much larger iceberg. The Post reports that of the nearly 600 police shootings to take place in the United States during the first eight-plus months of 2015, only 24, or less than one half of one percent, were of the Michael Brown variety.
I did not believe the Post story when I first read it. The numbers seemed ridiculously high. I wondered whether the piece was, in fact, a spoof published by the Onion, or some other satirist. Then I read the thumbnail sketches of dozens of those killed. So many of the cases seemed to be similar. Surely, a satirist would have had a better imagination than the sad stories reported.
Here are three examples, chosen from last week’s killings.
“Richard Tyler Young, a 24-year-old man driving a vehicle, was shot on Aug. 10, 2015, in Gilbert, Ariz. A Gilbert police officer stopped Young's vehicle for speeding in a school zone. During the encounter, Young accelerated his car toward the officer.”
“Robert Patrick Quinn, a 77-year-old man with a toy weapon, was shot on Aug. 9, 2015, in an apartment building in Pittston, Pa. Officers from the Pittston Police Department encountered Quinn, who was on a motorized scooter, waving a handgun in front of his apartment building. He refused to drop the weapon, which was later determined to be a pellet gun.”
“An unidentified person, a man armed with a gun, was shot on Aug. 8, 2015, in Spokane, Wash. Spokane police followed him home because he was suspected of stealing a car. After a brief standoff, he came out of his residence and fired at officers.”
Read several dozen accounts and note the themes: Armed men, and most are men, threatening cops; a deranged person posing immanent risk of harm to others; suicide by cop; anger.
I suppose there is a reason that the government does not keep statistics of this sort, although it easily could – the FBI’s uniform crime statistics can keep track of burglaries but not police homicides. Reading the Post story has me wondering whether we really train police well for the challenges they face on the street.
Our streets are awash in guns, we have inadequate mental health services, the middle class is disappearing. Streets are often theaters of despair. Police officers responding to calls are trained that they can use force, even deadly force, when they have good reason to believe they are at risk.
We’ve militarized the police when what they need is training in how to deal with disturbed, and often mentally ill, people.
There’s no doubt hundreds more people will be killed by officers before year’s end. The courts and reviewing police departments will find almost all of these killings justified.
Read the Post’s coverage of this violence and ask yourself if we really can’t do better.