The problem of fatal police shootings in America goes beyond a few bad apples. It points to persistent and systemic problems that lead to ongoing tragedies for communities of color.
Between 1980 and 2005, close to 9,600 people were killed by police in America — an average of about one fatal shooting every day. However, the real number may be higher due to underreporting by some departments to the federal government. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department responded to a Freedom of Information Act request by claiming there were 79 fatal police shootings from 2000 to 2005. Yet only 38 fatal shootings were reported to the federal government for the same period.
While the precise number may not be clear, it is apparent that fatal shootings are not inevitable. Washington, D.C., had the nation’s highest rate during the 1990s. But a combination of firearms training for all and true accountability for misbehaving officers led to a dramatic drop in the number of fatal shootings.
It’s also clear that shootings are not distributed evenly throughout the population. In Chicago, for example, more than two-thirds of the shootings happened in black and Latino neighborhoods, and the majority of the incidents occurred in poor neighborhoods.
African Americans are particularly at risk of being killed by police. Black people were overrepresented among victims in each of America’s 10 largest cities. This contrast was particularly glaring in New York, Las Vegas and San Diego, where the percentage of black people killed was at least double their share of the general population.
“There is a crisis of perception where African American males and females take their lives in their hands just walking out the door,” said Delores Jones-Brown, interim director of the Center on Race, Crime and Justice at John Jay College in New York. “There is a notion they will be perceived as armed and dangerous. It’s clear that it’s not a local problem.”
The shootings may be explained in part by implicit bias on the part of police officers, according to research by University of Chicago Professor Joshua Correll. In New York, connecting negative stereotypes with racial identity was considered as a factor in the 1999 fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo and the 2006 shooting of Sean Bell — both of which involved black male victims being killed by more than 40 shots fired by officers.
Another key part of the equation: a disturbing lack of internal accountability from local police departments.
In Chicago, nearly half of the officers sued in those shootings had been sued for previous violations. Most had been sued at least twice. Although being sued does not mean an officer is guilty, multiple lawsuits against the same officer should draw the department’s attention.
Yet little seems to happen to these and other officers accused of killing residents. Chicago’s initial “roundtable” investigations of 85 officers cleared all but one of them — and that officer got a promotion two years later. (Police officials said they did find fault among other officers, but could not provide any statistics.)
A similar situation exists in Phoenix, which had the highest rate of fatal police shootings among the nation’s 10 largest cities. Although there were more than 100 incidents of officer-involved shootings in the city during the past five years, and numerous shootings in neighboring jurisdictions, only one shooting in the county has resulted in criminal charges being filed against the officer who fired — and that was for the fatal shooting of a white woman.
This broken system hurts everyone. It lowers public confidence in police. It casts a shadow over the thousands of officers who do the right thing. And it drains city coffers by the millions, both in lawyers’ fees and payouts to victims’ families.
Any fix must tackle the whole department, starting at the top. The combination of training and accountability taken by the D.C. department is an important element. So is finding ways to protect officers who are doing their jobs and who are willing speak up about their colleagues who are not.
Many people know that police have a very challenging and stressful job in which the stakes are remarkably high — often requiring officers to choose between their own or someone else’s survival. But the concentration of shootings in specific neighborhoods and the general lack of accountability diminish police credibility in any particular police verdict.
Ignoring the problem is no longer an option. It’s time to look beyond the apples and deal with the barrel.
Rinku Sen is the executive director and publisher of ColorLines magazine. Alysia Tate is the editor and publisher of The Chicago Reporter.