It feels like every week, a name is added to the list: another man, often black and unarmed, has died at the hands of police.
Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jason Harrison, Walter Scott, Eric Harris, Freddie Gray, to name a few.
The headlines make it feel as if the country is experiencing an unprecedented wave of police violence, but experts say that isn’t the case. We’re just seeing more mainstream media coverage, and for a variety of reasons.
Let’s be clear: That’s just each expert’s sense of things. We rely on hunches because real numbers don’t exist, likely because no one thought it important to keep a tally until recently.
Chat with a publisher or editor at one of the country’s African-American newspapers, and she or he can tell you they’ve been covering these cases for a long time.
“We’ve been in business for 130 years,” said Robert Bogle, president and CEO of The Philadelphia Tribune, without a hint of sarcasm.
“What is being exposed nationally is something that’s been troubling us in Philadelphia as African-Americans,” he said. “Yes, we have written about it. We’ve talked about it. This is the African-American experience, and for some reason non-African-Americans don’t believe it.”
They’re starting to believe it, thanks to cell phones, said Cedric Alexander, the DeKalb County, Georgia, deputy COO of public safety and president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
“Black and brown people have been making these complaints for years, but they fell on deaf ears because no one wanted to believe some officers would act that way,” he said.
After video of Cleveland police killing the 12-year-old Rice outside a recreation center, New York police choking Garner as he cried “I can’t breathe” and Scott being repeatedly shot in the back as he fled an officer, the public’s skepticism is waning, he said.
People are realizing, “Wow, they really did shoot this guy in the back. Wow. Oh, s**t, there’s some truth to this,” Alexander said.
Black newspaper executives feel the videos lend credibility not only to black victims’ versions of events in specific situations, but also to their versions of events historically. Where a victim’s race could affect a story’s perceived veracity, video permits no such prejudice.
Alexander concurred, citing a common dilemma for inner-city kids: “If police say that’s what happened and you don’t have something to prove otherwise, you’re screwed.”
Had there been no video of Scott’s shooting, Bogle said, the public might have believed Officer Michael Slager’s story that he’d been attacked and had no choice but to fatally shoot Scott.
The video, though, taken by a bystander who happened upon the incident, showed Scott running as Slager shot him in the back. Slager now stands charged with Scott’s murder.
“When you have clear evidence that would contradict a different story, it’s difficult to engage in denial,” Bogle said.
Added Publisher Tracey Williams-Dillard of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, another African-American newspaper: “Things are being recorded by others. There’s now no way it can be disputed.”
Where are the numbers?
Today, it seems like there’s a stat for everything.
Want to know the most common offense for which people are incarcerated? No problem. Need to know the percentage of fatal plane crashes caused by pilot error? Easy. The score of every Monday Night Football game since 1990? A breeze.
But if you want to know how many times a police officer has killed someone in the line of duty, you’re out of luck.
“It’s really ridiculous we don’t have that count,” said David Klinger, an associate criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “For whatever reason, the powers that be that collect data for the feds … decided that how often police kill people doesn’t matter.”
Despite that the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 required the government to keep “data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers,” no such database exists. A study published 14 years ago sought to nail down numbers, but its author conceded to CNN that only 564 of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement entities participated.
The closest thing to a statistic is the FBI’s assertion that police were responsible for about 400 “justifiable homicides” annually between 2008 and 2012.
Even if there were an accurate count, Klinger said, we’d still be “missing a huge part of the picture when it comes to deadly force.” Cops tend to shoot to kill — and gunfire is the predominant means by which police kill suspects — so more illuminating would be knowing how many times police opened fire, period, he said.
Can videos end cycle?
Bogle doesn’t need statistics, he said. It wasn’t many generations ago that black Americans could not find justice in lynchings and other racially motivated crimes, he said, explaining that extrajudicial killings by police are just a continuation.
“Black Americans and black Philadelphians have been talking about and addressing these issues, to no avail,” he said. “There’s no way to actually determine that there’s more or less. What’s occurred is there are more ways to expose it.”
Not only are we in a better position to capture video of police misbehavior today, we’re also better equipped to disseminate the footage. Instantaneity is important, he said.
Events that 10 years ago would’ve come down to a suspect’s word versus an officer’s are now recorded on cell phones and officers’ body and dashboard cameras. And where a news reporter could have taken days to travel to a city, find and interview witnesses and obtain a police narrative, a bystander can post video of a police encounter to the Internet minutes after it happens.
“That’s critical. If you see an incident a week later, that has an impact on the reaction,” Bogle said. “It’s not a timely event, and people’s reactions are different.”
Because humans are visual creatures, videos impact people more than might a written or spoken narrative, and many experts feel the images help drive coverage of the incidents.
“It not only feels like there’s more coverage, there is more coverage. … It’s not a perception, it’s definitely real,” Williams-Dillard said.
Don’t expect the videos to be a panacea for the violence, said Klinger, who counts police use of force among his research interests. Yes, video can refute a lie, but just as police have lied about suspects, suspects have lied about police as well.
“Most of the time when there’s video, it demonstrates the officer did the right thing,” he said. “I think it’s going to cut both ways. … We’re going to have a bunch of cried wolf.”
A ‘sensitized’ nation?
People’s attitudes are changing as well, said Irv Randolph, managing editor of The Philadelphia Tribune. Not only do you have people as influential as Attorney General Eric Holder speaking out, but civil rights is “front and center in terms of what young people are protesting against.”
Look no further than the rallies for Trayvon Martin, the teen killed in 2012 by a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer, or Scott in North Charleston. The protests drew diverse crowds, Randolph noted.
Likewise, the nonfatal but still racially charged incidents at two major American colleges — the arrest of a black student at the University of Virginia and racist chants by fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma — were condemned by folks of all races, he said.
“People are saying they’re not going to tolerate this anymore,” Randolph said.
Asked which factor — videos, social media or attitudes — was driving the recent spate of media coverage, Alexander said, “I think it’s all of the above.”
The nation, and especially its “communities of color,” is more “sensitized now to any contact with police,” he said.
But he’s reluctant to put the recent shootings under a single umbrella. For one, race isn’t always a factor in police brutality, he said, pointing out that the California man beaten after running from police on a horse, as well as James Boyd, the mentally ill man killed by Albuquerque police last year, were white.
The circumstances in many of the shootings also require that they be scrutinized differently, he said.
Similar yet different
In the Scott case, it’s “disturbing” to see Slager open fire on the 50-year-old, said Alexander, who has worked in a variety of local, state and federal law enforcement capacities since 1977.
“Something is wrong with that officer there,” he said. “Walter Scott was no threat. He wasn’t even able to run well when you watch the tape. We can pretty much clearly see that this guy was no threat to the officer.”
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, you have a septuagenarian reserve deputy providing containment in a “high-threat undercover gun sale” who shoots Eric Harris with his gun instead of his Taser. The debate has revolved around the deputy’s age, stress level and the fact he was a benefactor to the police department.
And in Ferguson, Missouri, you have a police shooting — ruled justified by investigators — occurring in a town that the Justice Department determined “was deliberately, outright, straight-up racist,” Alexander said.
You have three different shootings involving a white officer and black victim, yet they involve wholly different sets of circumstances, he said.
It’s also important to remember that there are far more good police officers than bad ones, and just like the media has failed to tell the stories about police violence against minorities, “there are officers out jumping in front of bullets and doing the right thing, and those stories aren’t being told as well.”
“Don’t paint your whole police department as bad guys,” Alexander said. “I support police, but the bad ones, we need to go in and pull those guys out. We need police, and police need community, and there’s a lot of good cops doing good work out there everyday.”
Bogle, The Tribune CEO, agreed, saying, “Just like there are some bad police, there are bad people out there, no doubt, that need to be taken off our streets.”
He’d like to see people participating more in surveillance and crime prevention in their neighborhoods, while police should receive more training and return to a community-oriented model, he said.
“There needs to be training because we’re not going to end how people feel about each other,” he said. “We need a good, strong police force, but we don’t need them adding to the problem because they don’t understand who is living in these communities.”
Yet no matter how much people participate and how many policing reforms are enacted, the American public is fickle and “law enforcement, by nature, is contentious, not just in the black community,” Klinger said.
Just as support for the death penalty spikes during periods of high crime in the country, that support drops when crime is down, Klinger said. He suspects police use of force follows a similar pattern.
“Everybody loved the cops on September 12,” he said.