POLICE HOMICIDES IN THE UNITED STATES | WHAT REALLY HAPPENED


POLICE HOMICIDES IN THE UNITED STATES

The killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Walter Scott have increased the world’s attention to US police violence, yet most Americans underestimate the threat posed by the people charged with keeping them safe.

Let’s turn to the facts.

There is no national registry of civilians killed by police and corrections officers in the United States. Several states, including Texas, Connecticut and California, maintain complete records, but in most parts of the United States, local law enforcement chooses whether to report officer-involved homicides to the federal government. The lack of systematic data poses a challenge both for those who wish to hold police accountable for their actions and for those who want to propose reform measures to reduce police violence. How many killings are committed by police?

In recent months, a number of ‘crowdsourced’ databases have emerged, including in particular Fatal Encounters and Killed by Police.[3] Journalistic efforts, including those by the Washington Post and the Guardian, have conducted infographic-style analyses of the patterns of police homicides that are known to the public. This latter qualification is a big one.

It is difficult to collect information about violence committed by governments. Victims are afraid of retaliation and so they explain the deaths in other ways. The families of victims rightly recognize that to accuse a police or military officer of murder puts themselves and their family members directly in the path of well-resourced and sometimes violent adversaries who may be above the law.

Furthermore, state agents who commit mass violence make every effort to disguise their actions. They influence coroners to describe the killings as accidents. They create narratives that distort responsibility so that it seems as though the victim is at fault for his or her own death. In their own narratives, police and military officials are keeping the peace and protecting innocents from the violent, the rebellious and the criminal. And in many cases, these narratives are correct. After all, the reason we consent to the existence of armed forces in our midst is precisely to keep us safe from these threats.

In other incidents, however, the police have killed people by accident, or because they used excessive force, or because their rules of engagement permit them to use deadly force whenever they feel their lives are threatened, for any reason. The question Americans face is therefore at what point the violence committed by our protectors exceeds the violence we might suffer from the people they claim to be protecting us against?

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