The fatal police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, is certainly egregious overstep of police force, but not necessarily out of the ordinary. Sadly, it’s a scenario that is being played out week after week on city streets across the United States every year.
According to data compiled by the FBI, in a seven year period ending in 2012 an average of nearly two black people were killed by police every week. Even more troublesome: Almost 20% of those killed were under the age of 21, more than double the rate of whites of the same age group. If you are black, being young doesn’t seem to protect you.
If you’re the type of person who needs some anecdotal evidence to go along with the data, consider the following. Only a couple of days after Michael Brown was gunned down in Ferguson, a black mentally disabled Los Angeles 25-year-old was shot 3 times in an incident with police. He later died of his injuries. Like Brown, the victim, named Ezell Ford, was unarmed. Think about that for a moment. As Ferguson was embroiled in national outrage, massive protests and localized riots over a fatal police shooting; police in another city shrugged their shoulders and killed another person in much the same way. Now protests have begun there, too.
Two more examples to add to the nearly 100 black people killed by police every year.
And that number is sure to be a massive underestimation. As the USA TODAY explains:
While the racial analysis is striking, the database it’s based on has been long considered flawed and largely incomplete. The killings are self-reported by law enforcement and not all police departments participate so the database undercounts the actual number of deaths. Plus, the numbers are not audited after they are submitted to the FBI and the statistics on “justifiable” homicides have conflicted with independent measures of fatalities at the hands of police.
In other words, police often don’t “count” the killings in the line of duty as homicides, because they simply file it under “justified” and move on. As University of South Carolina criminologist Geoff Alpert put it:
“I’ve looked at records in hundreds of departments,” Alpert said, “and it is very rare that you find someone saying, ‘Oh, gosh, we used excessive force.’ In 98.9% of the cases, they are stamped as justified and sent along.”
Police departments are often placed in the role of investigating their own shootings so it is unsurprising that many times they find that their officers were blameless in shootings. Add to that the complex history of mutual distrust between predominately black neighborhoods and the police and it’s no wonder that fatal police shootings are common, but rarely prosecuted.
That isn’t to say other racial groups are completely safe from police fatal force, though. Cops in the United States kill an extremely high amount of people compared to other developed nations. Using the same data as above, local police departments record killing at least 400 people each year. In order to grapple with that, let us, for instance, compare that to the United Kingdom – a similarly affluent Western nation.
According to an investigation by Channel 4 News, from 2011 to 2012, UK police officers fired their weapons just five times. In those incidence, just two individuals died. In the entire country, for an entire year, police officers killed as many people as unarmed black men were shot to death by police in the United States this week. Oh, and in an ironic twist, the citizens of England were so outraged that one of those men was shot by police that they rioted – protesting against the police for excessive force, setting police cars on fire, and burning down businesses. If the United States rioted for every murder at the hands of police, it’s entirely possible that not a single storefront in the nation would remain standing.
It’s not just that American officers kill more people, they fire at people more often too. In a stark example, a report by NBC in 2011 found that German police officers fired just 85 bullets all year. In the same year in America, a single traffic stop in Miami led to police firing over 100 rounds at the suspect. Another 84 shots were fired at a murder suspect in Harlem. Another 90 shots fired at an unarmed man in Los Angeles. And so on.
In what can only be considered a thinly-veiled thumbing of the nose to the United States’ dismal record, when asked about the declining use of guns by German police officers, a German interior minister famously remarked “Our police officers are no thugs in uniform.”
It’s hard not to think American police departments have some explaining to do.