By Paul Butler
In light of the growing number of police officers around the country who appear to believe that performing their jobs today puts their lives in increasing danger, the issue of police brutality seems to represent an issue on which different sides are unable to find much common ground. The extent of this divide became clear in early January, when police officers turned their backs on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio en masse for the third time in as many weeks, apparently over his comment that he, like many other parents of “young [men] of color,” had to “train” his son to act with particular caution when confronted by police officers. The recent string of high-profile deaths of unarmed black men and boys at the hands of cops helps demonstrate that the mayor’s statement reflected good parenting rather than an unfounded attack on officers. Although a comprehensive database of police shootings does not exist, the available data indicate that blacks are killed by officers in highly disproportional numbers. And despite claims to the contrary, police work is getting safer: fewer officers died in 2013 than in any year since World War II. Furthermore, when deaths are taken as a percentage of the total police force, 2013 was the safest time to be a cop in over a century.
Beyond the outrage over the deaths of Eric Garner and other victims, police brutality demonstrations also stem from longer-term racial disparities among those stopped by cops, including through the controversial stop-and-frisk program. In 2011, for example, the New York Civil Liberties Union noted that “the number of stops of young black men exceeded the entire city population of young black men,” indicating that the average young black male in the city was stopped more than once. Even though the overwhelming majority of those stopped were innocent, defenders of stop-and-frisk argued that the policy effectively deterred crime. Recently released findings, however, indicate otherwise. In 2014, Mayor de Blasio’s first year in office, 79 percent fewer stops occurred than the previous year, but crime nonetheless dropped by 4.6 percent, with homicides at their lowest level since New York City began keeping reliable records in the 1960s. Evidently, racially discriminatory policing is not just morally abhorrent, but also ineffective.
This December, in the midst of this focus on police practices, President Obama proposed federal funding to help purchase over 50,000 body cameras, which several studies have indicated alter officers’ and citizens’ behavior for the better. In Rialto, California, when body cameras were randomly assigned among the police force for a year, citizen complaints decreased by 88 percent, while use-of-force complaints dropped by 60 percent against cops wearing cameras. Despite the large partisan divide on most police brutality issues, polls have found nearly unanimous support among Americans for requiring officers to wear small cameras while on duty. Outfitting police with such devices certainly raises some privacy concerns, but with proper safeguards it could represent a way to help reduce crime and provide video evidence to resolve claims of violence.
In the cases of Eric Garner, a black man who died after being put in a headlock by officers who approached him for selling loose cigarettes, and Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy holding an Airsoft pellet gun that the 9-1-1 caller rightly noted was “probably fake” who was shot virtually without hesitation and denied first aid for four minutes, clear video evidence has helped to show beyond doubt that the deaths were caused by the unwarranted violence of cops. Of course, larger inequities exist within our justice system that cameras won’t be able to solve on their own: Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Eric Garner, was not indicted on any charges by the grand jury, and it remains an open question if the cops responsible for Tamir’s death will face legal repercussions. Earlier this month, however, Wikipedia edits to the pages of Eric Garner and several other shooting victims downplaying police culpability were traced to computers located at NYPD headquarters.
The Justice Department’s recent report on the Ferguson Police System, documenting among other wrongdoings the usage of the regional court and police infrastructure as a means for extracting money from black residents, demonstrates the ways in which legal systems around the country are often stacked against minorities. In a broader sense, part of the problem in cases without video evidence or a reliable eyewitness is the sobering reality that when a black man is shot dead and the only person left alive to tell the firsthand story is the shooter, many individuals are all too willing to assume that the victim was a “thug” who deserved or otherwise brought about his death. Racial inequities in our police system and in our society as a whole won’t be going away anytime soon, but the first step in treating the problem is for all Americans to recognize that those inequities do, in fact, exist. Routinely viewing the accounts of police officers and other citizens who kill unarmed individuals with a healthy degree of skepticism will go a long way toward putting our justice system on the path to fairness.