Law enforcement in the USA is out of control

When will it end? The indiscriminate shooting of teenagers, a disproportionate number of them black, is a festering wound in a nation struggling for equality.

Federal statistics on fatal police shootings in the USA in recent years indicate that young black males have been at far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater according to an analysis by ProPublica, the independent non-profit that produces investigative journalism in the public interest:

“The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.”

Ferguson-police-shootingAs Propublica points out, if both groups were at equal risk, over the same period 185 more whites would have been killed – more than one a week. Either way, the statistic is outrageous. The facts seem to support what the African American community has been saying for decades: Blacks are being killed at disturbing rates compared to the rest of the American population. It is further evidence that US gun culture, made infamous by the National Rifle Association and assorted die-hard rednecks, inhabits the mentality of law enforcement.

ProPublica also analyzed the 12,000 police shooting deaths that were self-reported by agencies to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) between 1980 and 2012. Because they are not required to submit it, the data probably significantly undercounts the number of shootings. Florida departments, for example, haven’t submitted data since 1997 and New York City hasn’t submitted data since 2007.

Since 2008, there have been some 400 “justifiable police homicides”, a statistic that also relies on voluntary involvement of state and local police agencies — a fact that raises questions about the integrity of the data. It is a system that conceals exactly how many people are killed by police, and says nothing about those killed in an unjust fashion.

Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on 9 August 2014, at least 14 other teenagers — at least six of them African-American — have been killed by law enforcement officers in a variety of circumstances. The case of  12-year-old Tamir Rice is just the latest tragic incident. Whichever way one looks at, the standards of law enforcement training seem to be lax and standards of public accountability even laxer.

In “The Meaning of the Ferguson Riots”, The New York Times editorial (25 November 2014) suggested collusion and corruption in the decision not to indict the white police officer who shot and killed the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. The editorial noted that the decision, “would have generated widespread anger and disappointment in any case. But the county prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, who is widely viewed in the minority community as being in the pockets of the police, made matters infinitely worse by handling this sensitive investigation in the worst possible way.”

This is a public scandal. In addition, it is increasingly obvious to all but the grossly insensitive or downright racist that significant elements of the police in the USA are out of control. Yes, there are good and incorruptible police officers at all levels. But there are also those who dishonour the cause and the badge. As The New York Times concluded:

“President Barack Obama was on the mark last night when he said, ‘We need to recognize that this is not just an issue for Ferguson, this is an issue for America.’ The rioting that scarred the streets of St. Louis County — and the outrage that continues to reverberate across the country — underlines this inescapable point. It shows once again that distrust of law enforcement presents a grave danger to the civic fabric of the United States.”


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