Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Lethal Police Practices

Police killings of Black men continue to be in the news. Nevertheless it came as a shock and surprise to me when I learned that so far this year police have killed 708 persons. If they continue at this rate there will be close to 1000 victims this year.

Something is seriously the matter when the police kills so many citizens. The first surprise is that these numbers are compiled by private organizations. The Washington Post  began keeping track of reports of police killings after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO after they found out that the government does not record these events. The FBI has some statistics but they are admittedly very incomplete.

Different organizations come up with slightly different numbers. All of them are much too high. A government that does not even track police killings, clearly is not terribly interested in the safety of its citizens. 

There is widespread agreement that white citizens are killed at a much smaller rate than citizens of color. In some reports the number of deaths of African-American and Hispanic citizens together is about the same number of white citizens killed. 

Police officers are thought to be frequent victims of lethal attacks. But in 2015, 46 police officers were killed on duty in the United States. That is roughly 5% of the number of citizens killed by police officers.

Americans take these numbers for granted. But comparisons with police killings in other developed countries should make us sit up and demand an explanation. England and Wales with roughly 1/6 of the population of the US had 55 police shooting in the last 24--yes you read that right, twenty-four-- years while we had 59 fatal police shootings in the first 24 days of 2015. Comparisons with other European countries are equally startling. Iceland--a very small country--had 1 police shooting in the last 71 years. Germany with 1/4 the population of the US had 15 police shootings in the 2 years 2010/2011. We may well have 1000 police shootings in the present year.

I have written in past blogs that the high rates of violence are to be seen as results of the violent history of our country in which we fought a war with Native Americans every ten years and have been a warlike country in the world since the middle of the 19th century. That opinion has widespread support. But when we look at police shootings, in countries that have similar histories of taking their land away from previous occupants, Australia and Canada, we see that our numbers are still extraordinary. We have fifteen times the population of Australia. Our police kills 1000 citizens a year. If Australian police killed their citizens at the same rate that our police kills us, they would kill about 70 citizens each year. Instead Australian police has killed 94 citizens in the 20 years between 1992 and 2011. Canada, with a population of 35 million as compared to our 316 million has 25 police killings a year as contrasted to 1000 in the US. Compared to these and other developed countries, our police is spectacularly indifferent to killing civilians. 

Thanks to Back Lives Matter and similar organizations, the huge disproportion between Blacks and whites killed by police has finally received public attention. But that phenomenon cannot be fully understood unless we also understand the context of police forces that are extraordinarily lethal for all citizens compared to those in many other countries. The public has so far accepted these numbers of 1000 civilians killed every year and hence there are exist few careful studies of this phenomenon.

How can we explain this discrepancy between numbers of citizens killed by police in the US and elsewhere?

Comparisons with Australia and Canada show that the history of killing indigenous people is not a cause. But some people have argued plausibly that, compared to other developed countries, police in our extraordinarily violent society,  have reason to expect violence on the part of people they are questioning. They may therefore be more trigger-happy than their colleagues in other countries.

In some European countries (Netherlands, Norway and Finland) police officers spend three full years at the Police Academy before they hit the streets. Many American police officers are trained for five months; many for shorter periods. European officers receive much more elaborate training in how to deal with people who are seriously distressed, who suffer from mental illness, or are under the influence of drugs. Many American officers have little or no comparable training.

Many European police receive very elaborate instructions in how to deal with potentially lethal situations. They must first give verbal warnings. Before shooting at a person they must make warning shots in the air. They must shoot to disable an aggressive person before they shoot to kill. Not all US police officers are subject to such rules.

These differences between US and European police officers are interesting and suggestive. But we have no satisfactory explanation of the much higher numbers of civilians killed by American police.

Many of the killings perpetrated by US police are called "justified" by police and criminal justice officials. The comparisons with killings by police in other countries suggests very strongly that, on the contrary, many of these American killings are not justified.
American citizens have the right to be safe from their police. Local and national government must make a major effort to understand why the police in our country are such a threat to civilians. They must immediately take steps to study, explain, and remedy this situation.