Americans had spent days watching round-the-clock coverage of the escalating tensions in Ferguson, Mo., when President Barack Obama acknowledged that we are “deeply disturbed” by the situation.
Indeed we are. Take your pick of the most dismaying elements of this horror show: The opaque and bungling way the Ferguson officials have responded to public outcry over the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed black man. The way in which protests devolved into looting and destruction. The exaggerated and wholly inappropriate show of military force — including everything from riot gear and tear gas to plastic bullets and stun grenades — by municipal police.
And then there is the tragedy itself at the heart of the furor — or was it a crime as well? We don’t know yet. Police have released an account of the incident that puts the blame squarely on the dead man.
The swift, massive outcry to the shooting is fueled by frustration, pent-up anger and disgust. The perception is that young, black men, even when they are unarmed, are being targeted by police and subjected to unnecessary force, even death. A witness account of Brown’s death fits with this narrative.
With time, an impartial and thorough investigation will help us find the truth. In the meantime, the common feeling among many, and not just black people, is that cases of police brutality are escalating.
But there’s a problem. There’s little evidence to judge by. No mandatory, ongoing national database exists to track instances of police use of deadly force.
“Police brutality” is great catchphrase for generating emotion, but coming to grips with it requires more understanding.
Some experts in recent days have tried to provide clarity.
“There is no escalation in the use of deadly force. What we are seeing is a proliferation of cellphones and cameras,” Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told The Wall Street Journal.
She may be right. The Internet guarantees that incidents receive heightened attention and are spread virally in ways that didn’t exist until recently. But what about evidence?
When I contacted her later, Haberfeld added, “As far as I am aware, there is no database about deadly encounters between police and the public because, given the size of our highly decentralized law enforcement, we do not have that many incidents that would justify having such a centralized database.”
Oddly enough, way back in 1994, Congress voted to institute this kind of reporting. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act called for compiling data on the use of excessive force by police. Annual reports were envisioned, the very type of information that would provide a useful frame of reference in the current controversy.
Studies have been done of various police departments and assessments culled from media accounts of fatal shootings have been attempted. But until better data are available, we have no hope of dissuading people from the idea that police are increasingly targeting their sons, nor do we have a good starting point for holding police accountable.
The Uniform Crime Report, compiled by the FBI, has some data, but it relies on voluntary reporting by law enforcement. There is also the problem of getting consistent information from department to department.
The Justice Department ought to take a look at Ferguson’s police force. Such an inquiry could answer some of the questions about whether young, black men of that city are unfairly singled out by police.
A 1996 report prepared for the Bureau of Justice Statistics was intended as a starting point for the never-gathered annual reports on excessive force. It noted, “Regardless of viewpoint, everyone agrees that excessive force has an adverse impact on relationships between police and the communities they serve, and seemingly no one would agree that ignorance on this topic is bliss.”
Yet that’s exactly where the nation is stuck.