The United States has a problem, and it can be discussed in any number of ways, put under different lenses, and theorized, philosophized, or heavily and heatedly debated. But it comes down to this:
Unarmed black men are seven times more likely than unarmed white men to die by police gunfire.
The stat comes from an analysis and exceptionally well-done piece by The Washington Post on today’s one-year anniversary of 18-year-old Michael Brown being shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri (his first interview since is in this week’s New Yorker). The protests that followed for weeks after, and then months later when Wilson wasn’t indicted, brought police violence back into the national conversation, but those hoping for a much different 2015 are having their hearts broken over and over.
Brandon Jones, Charly Leundeu Keunang, Walter Scott, Naeschylus Vinzant, David Felix, Thomas Allen, Brandon Glenn, Kris Jackson, William Chapman, Albert Joseph Davis, Lavall Hall, Bobby Gross, Samuel DuBose, Eric Harris, Frank Shephard, Artago Damon Howard, Darrius Stewart, Salvado Ellswood, Victor Emanuel Larosa, Jeremy Lett, Anthony Hill, Spencer McCain, Tony Robinson, and Christian Taylor have been shot and killed by police—all 24 of them black, all 24 of them unarmed (some in the middle of a crime, but still unarmed).
And that’s just this year. So far.
2015, a year where 40 percent of unarmed deaths by police are black men (who are only 6 percent of the U.S. population), isn’t exactly the wild outlier one might hope it is. In 2012, African-Americans were 31 percent of police shooting victims, though only 13 percent of the U.S. population.
In a country where the first promise of unalienable rights is the preservation of life, this is a horrifying problem to have. But we need more to correct it.
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 meant, in theory—or at least promised—"The Attorney General shall, through appropriate means, acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers.“
Yet, no database exists.
A study published 14 years ago made a significant attempt, but its author told CNN a mere 564 of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement entities participated.
That’s only 3 percent.
We’ve explored more of the ocean (just under 5 percent) than we have police brutality in the U.S.
That’s why we get headlines like “here’s what we know” and “Exactly How Often Do Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men?” It’s why sites like Mapping Police Violence exist.
The trouble with the national dialogue, though, is that “police” encapsulates every officer when every officer isn’t the problem, and that all too often sidetracks the point. The obvious goal, in its most basic summary, is to support the good and punish the wrong. As Jon Stewart noted in a follow-up to an injustice-focused episode of The Daily Show, "You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.”
Now, with the recent, and ideally growing, trend of actual footage following a headline, we can have a more exact account of incidents and be able to move toward bringing individual officers who react with an identifiable use of excessive force to justice. This won’t always be the case, but it’s a step in right direction.
“Prior to Ferguson, police were politically untouchable. Ferguson changed that calculus,” says Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown University. “Five years from now, every major police department in America will have officers who wear body cameras. That is a change that is happening right now because of Ferguson.”