Police and Racism

There are two intertwined issues that exist within today’s police.  These issues are main drivers of the unrest triggered at Ferguson.

Those issues are first, the changing of our public safety officers into a security service, as detailed in this excellent and comprehensive post:

In 1994 Congress instructed the Department of Justice to “acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers” and “publish an annual summary”.  They’ve ignored this, unlike their lavishly detailed account of law enforcement causalities. The total of 409 comes from voluntary reporting by the 18 thousand US law enforcement agencies. This article at FiveThirtyEight by Reuben Fischer-Baum and Al Johri explains why that is certainly far too low (more details here), and points to more accurate numbers. But we don’t know if the total is rising, or how rapidly.

Given this vacuum, attention has recently turned to some excellent nongovernmental attempts to compile this data, including the Fatal Encounters database, the recently created Gun Violence Archive and a new database created by Deadspin.

But one recent effort stood out for its apparent comprehensiveness: The Killed By Police Facebook page, which aggregates links to news articles on police-related killings and keeps a running tally on the number of victims. The creator of the page does not seek to determine whether police killings are justifiable; each post “merely documents the occurrence of a death.” …

Applying these percentages to the total count at Killed By Police would imply that officers acting in the line of duty have killed in the neighborhood of 1,250 to 1,350 people since May 1, 2013. That’s about 1,000 deaths per year.

The always interesting AntiMedia.com draws a logical and important conclusion from these numbers:

Unfortunately, the most important implication of the FBI report is the simple fact that the report exists. When the FBI takes the time to construct a meticulous report (you can read more details here) of all the ways that a tiny percentage of cops were killed but cannot be bothered to officially count civilian deaths at the hands of cops, the reality is obvious:

The government places a higher priority on their own than on the lives of those they claim to “serve,” “protect,” and “work for.” It cares more about exonerating the police of their crimes than providing justice to those they abuse. There is no justice when the criminal is the cop.

This information is not news, but it points to a hopefully growing realization about what it is that police do.  Their purpose, goals, and priorities must be constantly reexamined to prevent, or now reverse, this exact occurrence.

The second issue, which is what protesters have focused on, is racism.  It’s simply a fact that this security force is used against minorities disproportionately, with devastating effects to the minority individuals, families, and communities.  This interesting article from the Washington Post documents the racism beyond refute.  The article shows that blacks are arrested at ~4 times the rate of whites for marijuana possession, while not having a substantially higher rate of use.  In addition, when possession is decriminalized, even though overall arrests plummet, the rates are still similarly disproportionate.

Based on the sheer numbers involved, it would make sense to primarily focus on reform of the police function first, to try to bring down the number of individuals directly impacted.   As these numbers come down everywhere, including among minorities, the racism will be easier to address since tensions should be much lower overall.  We need to do both, but I think the quickest result will be in the examination of police purpose and priorities.

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