Employees at two Wal-Mart stores in St. Louis County, Mo., stripped store shelves of ammunition last week in fear of looting as protesters continue to fill the streets in the beleaguered town of Ferguson.
It’s indicative of the high tensions that have not relented since August, when a white Ferguson police officer shot an unarmed black teenager. Anger over the death of Michael Brown has not subsided one iota, in part because of a second shooting of another black man. In that case, an 18-year-old died. Police say he had shot at an off-duty officer who was in his uniform. The man’s family disputes that contention, claiming he was unarmed.
For those apt to dismiss the outrage as over-reaction, listen up. A new snapshot synopsis of police killings makes a searing point.
“Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts — 21 times greater,” states a new study of federal data by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism outfit.
ProPublica analyzed more than 12,000 fatal police shootings from 1980 to 2012. The researchers narrowed the focus to three years’ data, 2010 through 2012, to estimate the disparity between black and white deaths at the hands of police.
This is one way to quantify that disparity, according to the report: Police would have to have killed 185 white young men during those three years — more than one every week — to even out the racial imbalance found.
Let’s be honest. If police were killing white men at such rates, there would be a national outcry to rein in law enforcement. But that’s not the case. This is where the tough conversations racial prejudice and policing ought to start.
I can hear the “yeah buts” forming in the minds of many readers.
Aren’t a lot of these killings justified? After all, the young man in St. Louis was allegedly shooting at an officer. How can the ProPublica statistics possibly be relevant?
Fair questions. And they are ones the study’s authors also acknowledged as shortcomings of their work. More information is needed before broad assessments can be made.
The data ProPublica studied are reported by police departments to the FBI. But that’s a problem. The data are only as strong as American police departments’ collective willingness to be forthcoming. And not all of them report such statistics, much less in a way that makes apples-to-apples comparisons possible.
Simply to show a racial disparity does not mean that white-against-black racism is the cause. The study’s authors pointed out that many of the shootings of black people are by black officers.
So why are black men still at a higher risk?
The kneejerk reply is to point to higher crime rates in American cities, particularly within neighborhoods where drugs, gangs and the resulting crime flourish.
But that doesn’t take into account the role of police in inciting violent confrontations. An important part of effective policing is de-escalating potentially dangerous situations. Many departments go to great lengths to track and analyze their own statistics, looking for trends and disparities that red-flag profiling or overly aggressive actions by officers.
Ask around in any black community and it’s not hard to elicit stories of threatening and demeaning personal encounters with police. And as dashboard camera footage and other video evidence occasionally shows with glaring clarity, frightened cops sometimes go berserk on peaceful black men and women.
Still, a point the new study underlines is the one that is the most difficult for aggrieved communities to accept: We still do not know enough about instances when police kill.
Short of litigating every such case, there must be more cooperation between police and the communities they serve to share better data about police shootings. That relationship will take time to cultivate, and in places like Ferguson the possibility seems light years away.
The number of young men of color shot by police needs to come down. It’s in the best interests of police to step out from behind the “blue shield” and commit to lowering them. Likewise, community leaders need to be aggressive and honest about who in their neighborhoods merits police attention — it’s no use shielding trouble-makers.
Police in Ferguson and many other communities across the country need to regain public trust. The benefits to all of a more transparent, cooperative relationship are hard to understate.
Clearly, sentiments are dangerously raw in many American cities. Minority communities are fed up with seeing their young men die. We must act now to change that, or we will discover that things can get much worse.