Widening the Aperture on Police Killings
Reframing police killing of Black Americans as a part of the larger issue of police killing all Americans
Police killings of African-Americans has been called a national shame, an ongoing tragedy, and, during the height of the pandemic, a pandemic too.
Say their names, protesters chant George Floyd, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, Eric Garner, Irvo Otieno, and Tyrie Nichols.
All were killed by police within the last year, Frasure was unarmed, cleaning out his grandmother’s garage when police shot and killed him after reports of a burglary. The also unarmed Couch was killed by Georgia police officers while fleeing from a routine traffic stop. Siderio was twelve years old when shot and killed by a Philadelphia police officer who now faces murder charges. West Virginia authorities have refused to release the video of the unarmed Exline being tased and dying in police custody, even though Governor Jim Justice has seen it and calls it “very concerning.”
Exline, Frasure, and Couch are among the 66 white people killed by American police this year, as compared to 33 Black people. Because whites account for roughly 60% of the U.S. population and African-Americans account for less than 14% you can see that Black people are killed in disproportionate numbers. Hispanics are killed by police at a slightly higher rate than white Americans, according to the Washington Post’s data.
The number of unarmed white people and Black people killed each year by police are also disproportionately skewed, but in both cases low, much lower than the public believes. In 2022 there were 19 unarmed whites killed by police, and 12 unarmed Black people.
It is inarguably true that America has a problem of police killing Black people. But it is also the case that America has a problem with the police killing all Americans. Ponder the fact that if in 2024 not one Black person were to be killed by law enforcement, the United States would still have, by far, the highest number and rate of citizens killed by police of any country in the developed world.
The reasons for this are many. Racism, the history of policing, and oppression of minorities is high on the list. But a driving factor in the death toll is the prevalence of guns, and the understandable belief among United States law enforcement officers that any encounter could become a fatal one. In no other advanced nation is that dynamic in play, which is also why even the best reforms will still leave us with hundreds of people killed each year by police. Some police killings are unavoidable, some are the best choice among dangerous, often horrible options. We need to account for the roles of guns, real risks, perceived risks, training and legal dynamics in understanding police killings; knowledge that adds to, not takes the place of, tackling the problem though a racial lens.
Next year if not one Black person were killed by law enforcement the United States would still have, by far, the highest rate of citizens killed by police of any country in the developed world.
In practical terms, the current tactic of presenting police violence as a racial problem has not led to progress. All efforts to actually defund the police failed. The various efforts to weaken the polices legal protection got some traction in one or two states, but anything close to sweeping reform has been elusive. Minneapolis just got a settlement agreement that has some promise, but elsewhere, including in the U.S. Congress, police reform has stalled. That’s not surprising. Big reforms are hard, Americans are generally more afraid of crime than of excessive force, and police departments and unions know how to lobby and work the system.
But another stumbling block has been the framing of the problem along as a purely racial one. White people killed by the police have not become the kinds of martyrs that Black victims have become. It’s not for want of extremely sympathetic examples.
Warning the following videos are all very disturbing.
Like George Floyd, Dallas Resident Tony Timpa was killed by a police officer kneeling on his back, in Timpa’s case for 14 minutes:
Like the Army Lieutenant Lt. Caron Nazario, police gave Daniel Shaver a series of confusing and contradictory orders. Shaver did not survive the encounter, killed while laying face down in a motel hallway:
Like Philando Castillo, Ryan Whitaker was lawfully armed. Like Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker, Whitaker was in his own home when police came to the door. Whitaker was shot on sight, in the back. I count 3 seconds between Whitaker opening his door and being killed:
There are dozens more people of all ethnicities whose stories, were they to be widely known, would paint a broader, more accurate picture of police abuse. These are all anecdotes, but not racially unrepresentative anecdotes. Examples, after all, not the data, is what galvanized Americans to protest the murder of George Floyd and the death of Breonna Taylor. To select the examples of victim from martyrdom from one demographic, and not all demographics, probably leads a number of White Americans to experience sympathy but not personal urgency.
It would seem that in order to pass broad, sweeping, legislation, you need to convince a broad swath of the public that changing laws is in their interest, not somebody else’s. Polls show that white liberals do agree with the idea of police reform, but that overall whites are the only demographic group to believe that “major” reform is unnecessary. Whites don’t see major police reform as in their interest, because they literally don’t see white people getting killed by police in the news or on their social media feeds.
The group least surprised by the lack of progress on police reform attitude would be critical race theorists. From the time he wrote “Race Racism and American Law” in 1973 CRT champion Derek Bell spoke of “interest converge theory.” This was the idea that the rights of Black people only advance upon experiencing a convergence with the interests of white people. When it comes to police killings, the interests actually have aligned, but most Americans, of all races, don’t realize it.
Recently on my podcast, the Gist, I interviewed Todd Brewster, who, along with Marc Lamont Hill, wrote “Seen and Unseen: Technology, Social Media, and the Fight for Racial Justice.”
The book offers a semiotics-like interpretation of the images of murdered African-Americans, going back through history. I asked Brewster, who spent many years as a producer at ABC News, about the story being told, that police are killing Black men, and the story that isn’t being told, that police are killing all Americans at alarmingly high rates. He referenced an example he gives to his journalism students:
There are two different stories, they both need to be told. Think of the story as a piece of sculpture. Stand at one point looking at sculpture and you’ll see one thing, walk around to another side and you see something completely different. But they’re all part of the same sculpture. But maybe the balance needs to be understood better.
It’s clear what parts of the sculpture we’ve been made to witness. And yes, the recent visibility of police abuse is a vast improvement from the denial and opacity of the pre-body cam/cellphone era. But now our algorithms, media gatekeepers, and activists are defining the issue so specifically that it thwarts reform and diminishes understanding.
There also can be a psychological benefit to accurately presenting the bleak picture of police killings as a shared burden. Studies show that the narrative, and reality, of police violence against Black men causes PTSD type symptoms among fellow Black men . Of course it does. The belief that Black men are being “literally hunted, or that Police Kill Black Males with Impunity is widespread. Perhaps a message that these harms are experienced by many more Americans than is widely reported will make the experience of the Black community less traumatizing. Though I’d say what would make the experience of the Black community less traumatizing is less trauma. This means decreasing the number of Black Americans killed by police each year, which hovers around 250 annually, and of course it means lowering the number of overall murders among African-Americans which rose to over 14,000, or possibly higher, in 2021. Without understanding the scope, by widening the lens, we will never be able to prevent so many tragic interactions between the police and the policed.
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