Ferguson and the Lack of Transparency in American Police Shootings

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Human Rights, International

by Jamison Maeda

Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year old, was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  It’s the infamous, American narrative; White police officers killing black people because of institutionalized racism and discrimination.  Most people around the world are aware of it. Americans certainly are.  But to what extent are black people more likely to be shot by police than other races or ethnic groups? The truth is, no one really knows the truth.

The F.B.I. keeps track of deaths at the hands of police officers. The Bureau of Justice Statistics also keeps records of deaths from police interactions. But their numbers vary significantly.

There is no national data on how many people in the U.S. are killed by police each year but it’s approximately 400. Other countries keep much clearer records. Six people were killed by police in Australia in 2011, six in Germany, and two in England and Wales.

“It’s shocking” said Geoffrey P. Alpert, professor of criminology. “We don’t have a clear picture of what’s going on in the use of lethal force. Are young black males being shot at a rate disproportionate to their involvement in crime? We don’t know.”

Some data shows that black people were about four times as likely to die in custody or while being arrested than white people and Hispanics two times as likely as white people to be killed by police. But the data is incomplete and highly unreliable. The vast majority of America’s 17,000 police departments don’t bother to file fatal police shooting reports. New York City last reported in 2007, and Florida’s police haven’t filed reports since 1997.

One study showed that in fact, white suspects killed by police outnumber black suspects. But this study failed to take into account that black people make up only 12% of the American population.

The actual numbers to a large extent are anyone’s guess.

And in the vacuum of information, people will draw their own conclusions. A running narrative is that 18 year old Michael Brown was walking down the street when a white, Missouri police officer drew a gun on him. Witnesses said Michael raised his hands to show that he was unarmed and shouted “don’t shoot” before he was gunned down. But the evidence the grand jury eventually heard was that Michael Brown was the suspect in a strong-arm robbery at a nearby convenience store. He was stopped by a police officer, punched the officer repeatedly, and attempted to take his gun. Eye witness testimony that claimed Michael was on his knees with his hands raised lost its relevance when the witness later admitted he hadn’t actually seen the shooting.
Another witness admitted she has a mental disorder, and has trouble distinguishing the truth from what she reads online. The testimony of the witness who claimed he saw Michael Brown being shot in the back has now been disproved by the autopsy report.

But until the grand jury evidence was released, the public didn’t know what happened. We were again dependent on sensationalist reporting from the mainstream media, and anecdotal personal experience of how poor people and people of color are treated by the police.

Why, in 2014, is the U.S. government able to monitor every phone conversation and email around the world, but cannot report the number of Americans killed by police? Why does the public have to depend on the speculations of Fox News and CNN? We now have more information on Michael Brown’s case, but there are thousands of others.

The U.S. government has spent billions of dollars on military equipment for police departments. They have been given armored vehicles, 500 planes, and nearly 94,000 machine guns. Yet supposedly they cannot afford uniform cameras, and aren’t required to report officer involved shootings.

The people are demanding transparency. They demand police accountability, and they want the facts about the use of lethal force.  People being killed by police is a serious issue and it warrants immediate attention. There are protests across the U.S. not only because of Michael Brown’s case, but because people are angry, and we should be.

On November 22nd, Tamir Rice of Cleveland, Ohio was killed within 2 seconds of police arriving on the scene. He was playing with a pellet gun in a park. He was 12 years old.