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Death By Numbers: The Mathematics of Police Violence in America

Death By Numbers: The Mathematics of Police Violence in America: Jamelle Bouie/flickr creativecommons

Jamelle Bouie/flickr creativecommons

The past few weeks have been marred by levels of consistent civil disobedience and protest unseen in American streets since the Vietnam era. But amidst the rage, confusion, and misinformation, we can spy, quite clearly, a set of emergent facts—a data-set to rely on when speaking out against those who refuse to see the bigoted underpinnings of America’s criminal justice system. These numbers portray the face of justice in America—where cops are allowed to get away with murder in the name of protecting the state—in a way that is impossible to refute.

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the number of reasons required by police to use “deadly force”

What if I could legally kill you because you frightened me? How about if I could shoot you dead because I don’t think you’re listening? Would you say that’s a good legal standard for me to use to kill you? No? What if I told you I’m trying to protect you?

As we’ve seen with two recent non-indictments of the NYPD’s Daniel Pantaleo and the Ferguson PD’s Darren Wilson, when a police officer tells a grand jury that he felt his life was threatened or that he needed to use extreme force, the court takes his word for it. All the cop needs to shoot to kill is the feeling that his or her life is in danger—and the ability to articulate it in court. Has America made it too easy for an officer to get away with murder?

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the number of Supreme Court rulings that, in concert, grant police officers the right to be legal executioners

In the 1985 case, Tennessee v. Garner, the court set the bar for when an officer may use “deadly force": if a suspect poses a threat to an officer or if the suspect attempts to avoid arrest and, by doing so, poses a threat to other citizens. But what criteria does an officer use to determine if a suspect is a threat? That’s where it gets trickier.

In the 1989 decision, Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court removed “due process” and ruled that “excessive force” occurs when a police officer violates a specific Constitutional right. Typically, the 4th Amendment against “unreasonable seizures” and 8th Amendment protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.” But SCOTUS ruled those don’t often apply since an officer is assumed to be “reasonable;” cops are trained, sworn to oaths, and required to make split-second decisions. The choice to use “deadly force” is neither cruel, unusual, or a punishment–it’s just a cop doing their job. Together, these two SCOTUS decisions place your life in the cross-hairs of any law enforcement officer. If they deem you a threat to their safety or the safety of anyone else, they may kill you and easily defend their choice in court.

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the number of principal motivators for police officers who shoot unarmed black suspects: fear and racism.

In his grand jury testimony, explaining why he drew his firearm on Michael Brown and chose to shoot to kill the suspect, Ferguson PD officer, Darren Wilson, used language that exemplifies how both factors colored his decision-making.

Fear:

“And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan. […] He looked up at me and he had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looked like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”

Racism:

“As he is coming towards me, I tell, I keep telling him to get on the ground, he doesn’t. I shoot a series of shots. I don’t know how many I shot, I just know I shot it.”

It?
Yep: it.

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the number of times out of 162,000 federal cases that a grand jury declined to return an indictment

According to Bureau of Justice statistics, in 2010, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 cases. In those cases, grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11. This is why Ferguson grand jury’s decision and the Staten Island grand jury decision are both the subject of such skepticism. It feels as if the officers won a legal lottery. Or, perhaps, they were never really in any legal danger because they’re cops.

As former police officer Redditt Hudson told the Washington Post there needs to be a special prosecutor assigned to try cases of “deadly force":

“The problem is that cops aren’t held accountable for their actions, and they know it. These officers violate rights with impunity. They know there’s a different criminal justice system for civilians and police.”

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the number of Americans killed by police in 2013

According to the FBI’s reported statistics, in 2013 there were 461 “justifiable homicides” of felons by police. They’re called “justifiable” because the officers, acting on their own discretion, have every court-protected right to use deadly force. It’s a “homicide” because a suspect’s life was ended. And they’re a “felon” because the suspect has committed, or was committing, a felony. Attacking a police officer is a felony. At the federal level, threatening a police officer is a felony. In many states, resisting arrest is a felony (but the concept of resistance is wide open to interpretation).

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the percentage increase in police killings from 2010 to 2013

In 2010, police officers reported killing 397 felonious American citizens. The next year, they reported 404. There was a jump in 2012, up to 426. And there was another jump last year. Cops killed 461 citizens in 2013. I’m sure you notice the obvious pattern. Flat out, that’s a lot of bodies. That’s a lot of “justified” killings. Know what’s worse? Those numbers would be far higher if all police officers and departments reported this data to the federal government.

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the real number of people killed by police each year, as estimated by copwatchers and journalists

Coca-Cola must let the government know how many cases of soda it moves each year via SEC filings (28.2 billion in 2013) but do police departments have to provide the FBI with data on the number of Americans they’ve gunned down?

Nope.

The Facebook page Killed By Police compiles police-related killings by linking to news stories, thus, creating a documented, paper count. Their numbers (used routinely by major news organizations) puts the national average at twice as high as the FBI’s.

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the numbers of people killed by police forces in the UK, Japan, and Germany, respectively, last year.

A key difference between our nation and theirs? Almost no one in any of those countries has a gun—including cops. And the police are slow to use theirs.

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the number of registered guns in America

In the USA, we have 310 million registered guns for 319 million people. That’s nearly one for every man, woman and gun-toting child—and not counting the unregistered firearms. But we do know that in 2010, the FBI denied 47.4% of gun-buyer’s permit applications based on the background check that turned up either a felony indictment or conviction. One would imagine some of those hopeful gun-buyers found a way to purchase a gun illegally. No wonder why police officers are so frightened.

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the age of Tamir Rice when he was gunned down by the police (who had sworn an oath to protect him)

In Cleveland, officers responded to a 911 call of “a guy with a gun pointing it at everybody.” The caller said “it’s probably fake.” When the cops arrived on the scene, there was no attempt to understand what was going on, no attempt to de-escalate the situation. In less than three seconds, officers deemed the suspect, a 12-year old boy, a threat to their lives, and possibly a threat to others. They shot to kill: two bullets to the stomach. It turned out it was a pellet gun that made the police officer feel his life was threatened.

Do you know what killed far more cops last year than twelve-year old boys with toy guns?

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the number of law enforcement officers, in 2013, that weren’t wearing their seatbelt when they were killed in a traffic accidents

In 2013, there were 23 officers killed in automobile accidents. 14 weren’t wearing their seatbelt. 4 officers died in motorcycle accidents. Far more than black men, cops should be afraid of forgetting to buckle-up. They’re 7 times more likely to die in an automobile accident than from a violent traffic stop.

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the number of police officers killed during traffic stops in 2013

A traffic stop places cops in a vulnerable position; even though it could go routinely as clockwork, it could also be the last thing they ever do. They’re trained to treat each traffic stop as perilous. But is this an accurate view of the danger? In the whole country, last year, three officers were killed “conducting traffic pursuits or stops.” There were also three officers killed “investigating suspicious persons or circumstances.” There were seven officers killed as a result of ambushes. That’s 13 in total. There were 14 more who were killed responding to robberies, engaging in tactical situations, answering disturbance calls or involved in investigative activity.

Unlike the FBI stats on “justifiable homicides,” when it comes to the number of fallen officers every death is reported.

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the number of American police officers feloniously killed in 2013

Across the United States, there were 27 police officers feloniously killed (non-accidental deaths) in the line of duty last year. Including accidents, all told, 76 officers were killed in the line-of-duty.

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the ratio of suspects/felons killed by officers to officers killed by felons

The police routinely say how afraid they are to do their job. They say they need more firepower, more body armor, more military vehicles and heavy weaponry so they can safely police the citizenry. Their fears are substantiated by 27 deaths last year. Spurred on by their fears, they killed 461 (or 1,100, depending on whose numbers you use).

No one should reduce fallen officers to a statistic. Each one of their lives matters, just like how each of the 461 killed suspects’ lives matter. (#AllLivesMatter) The point is not to compare lives, or death; rather, we need to determine what’s frightening police officers into being so quick on the trigger. Police act as if they are under constant threat, but the numbers do not support their culture of fear. Solutions don’t need to risk officer safety when the threats they’re facing are looked at through a less emotional lens.

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the year that chokeholds made national news due to a consistent, demonstrable pattern of suspects being killed by police in Los Angeles

Former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates had some famous words about chokeholds of his own:

“It seems to me that we may be finding that in some blacks when it is applied, the veins or the arteries do not open as fast as they do on normal people. … I’m having my people look at that very carefully.”

Gates said this to the Los Angeles Times in 1982 but remained police chief until 1992, when he resigned after the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots embarrassed the LAPD and the city.

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the number of times Eric Garner said, “I can’t breathe,” as police officers in Staten Island choked him to death

Do you still require hard proof police departments around the country need new standards for the use of “deadly force?” Study the case of Eric Garner. He was strangled to death on the sidewalk. Why? Did he have a weapon? No. Did he charge the police? Nope. Did he threaten the police? No. In fact, he was asking them to leave him alone.

If you watch the video, there is no obvious line that is crossed, there is no action that invites a violent response, but the police decide to subdue the suspect. Garner is a big man; Pantaleo has to fight to choke the much larger man. Other officers engage and begin grabbing at Garner’s limbs in order to restrain the man who is very clearly and demonstrably not resisting arrest. The suspect announces that he can not breathe … these become his final words.

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the number of hours police officers left Michael Brown’s body lying dead in the street

On a muggy August day, the Ferguson police felt it prudent to leave the body of a person killed by a police officer out for four hours, on the hot pavement, in plain view of his neighbors, as his body leaked blood and collected flies. In his testimony to the grand jury, the medical examiner reported that when he arrived on the scene his camera’s battery was dead. Thus, he was unable to take photos of Michael Brown’s body. His job is to officially record the crime scene, to document it. The medical examiner functions as the “eyes in the field” for the pathologist back at the lab. He showed up unprepared to do the most basic function of his job. What must have seemed like another run-of-the-mill dead black boy case was met by their typical everyday racist attitudes. How could they know the world’s eyes would soon focus on them? What we find on full display is a culture of bigotry, plainly evident in the Ferguson PD’s treatment of Michael Brown—both alive and dead.

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the number of murdered black men that started the American Revolution

You may or may not remember from elementary school the name Crispus Attucks. As his blood stained the whiteness of the snow-covered cobblestones of a colonial street, our imagined nation was born in the Boston massacre. America has always been a child of violence. But what most history lessons fail to teach—or what too much of America has forgotten—is that Crispus Attucks was a black man. Our nation was baptized in a pool of blood shed by a black man slain by British officers, there to keep the peace. Two bullets tore into his chest; Crispus Attucks fell cold and dead, the first person to be killed in the American Revolution. Our nation was conceived by an act of police violence. Tracing our modern relationship to the police all the way back to the spiritual birth of our nation, we find a familiar picture: a black man, dead in the street. May the most recent fallen black men and boys inspire a new revolution in how we police our nation.

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