As I get older, I understand less. I think it’s supposed to be the other way around, but everything looked a lot clearer when I stood an inch taller. Recently, a Minnesota jury acquitted Jeronimo Yanez, who had shot Philando Castille during a traffic stop. The shooting and subsequent trial have been much in the news, so I will not recount the known facts. Besides, this shooting is merely representative of other police-citizen interactions that culminated in violence. We could substitute almost any of the other cases and end with the same questions. As always, my interest is to take up more foundational questions—in this case, two puzzles that lie at the heart of the public debate about police shootings.
To begin with, I do not understand why it has become so difficult to discuss lethal violence at the hands of the police. Few topics generate as much rhetorical excess, and it is practically impossible even to raise the subject without being expected to take a position in the partisan wars. At the risk of inviting hostile fire from both sides, here’s the state of play.
Because no one keeps careful tabs on these killings, we cannot know precisely how many people are killed by law enforcement in the line of duty. The best estimates, independently replicated by multiple researchers, puts the number at about a thousand every year, or approximately three people killed by the police every day. Numerically speaking, most of these people are white, but people of color, and especially black men, are killed at higher rates than whites. I agree emphatically with the legal scholar Frank Zimring that this number alone is evidence of a serious national problem. In 2016, for instance, only 20 people were executed by capital punishment in the United States. When there are fifty times as many extra-legal as legal killings in society, we have a problem.
On the other hand, police killings every year represent only about 1/40th of the number of people who die annually in traffic accidents and only 1/10th of the total number of firearm homicides. There are more than 12,000 police departments in the country, and about 750,000 sworn police officers (meaning an officer with arrest power). We don’t know how many times police officers interact with members of the public, but estimates put the total number of misdemeanor arrests every year at ten million. In recent years, police in New York City alone issued roughly 650,000 summonses. Given these numbers, we can conservatively estimate the annual number of police-citizen interactions in the tens of millions. It is vitally important to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of these interactions do not begin or end in violence. As a percentage of all encounters, the use of lethal force by police is vanishingly rare. One thousand deaths at the hands of the police is undoubtedly a large number, but compared to what?
Yet to many urban communities of color, that is not the whole story. As they should, these communities view police conduct as a whole. The lethal violence, though infrequent, comes atop a long-term pattern of over-policing and under-protecting, about which I have written many times before. To the community, lethal violence is simply the most extreme expression of a far more routine practice of unnecessary and humiliating stops, needless citations, gratuitous disrespect, and episodic (albeit non-lethal) brutality. Justifiably, and understandably, the community experiences this litany in toto, and not as isolated, unconnected practices.
Moreover, the knowledge of lethal violence in one community of color quickly travels to and is felt in others. The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; of Tamir Rice in Cleveland; of Eric Garner in Staten Island; of Freddy Gray in Baltimore; and of Philando Castile outside Minneapolis, are naturally experienced and understood as a set of related events, which combine and reinforce each other to create a pervasive sense within the community of a state of siege. As Alice Goffman described in her excellent account of urban policing in Philadelphia, many in the black community feel they are under attack.
When a community of color erupts in response to a police killing, therefore, it is frequently reacting not simply to the shooting, but to the shooting as the culmination of a protracted and far more routine set of police practices, both in that community and elsewhere. From the outside, many whites focus on the shooting itself, and point out—quite rightly—that the incidence of such violence is mercifully infrequent, and that this particular shooting may have been legally justified; those on the inside, by contrast, see the shooting in a more comprehensive light, and point out—again, quite rightly—that the use of lethal force does not stand in isolation from other behavior. To communities of color, violence at the hands of the police—regardless of how widespread, and regardless of whether it is legally justified—is part of the inescapable reality of modern-day policing.
I simply do not understand why it is so difficult for people to grasp these very different perspectives on police violence. Each perspective is legitimate—in fact, each is obviously “correct.” Yet even so modest a step as pointing this out invites partisan denunciation from both sides. It’s a puzzle.
In a world of Venn diagrams, the second puzzle overlaps with the first. For the life of me, I do not understand the mystifying allure of blame and exoneration. When an officer kills in the line of duty, partisans immediately square off for a death match between two irreconcilable positions. Egged on by a media that loves nothing more than a good brawl, the question instantly becomes whether the killing was legally justified, which devolves in partisan terms to whether the officer should be condemned as a murderer or hailed as a hero. The ritual is so deeply engrained in public expectations that it practically escapes notice.
From a policy standpoint, this is a disaster. Consider the shooting of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy who was shot and killed by an officer who saw him playing with a toy gun. If we ask whether the officer who shot Rice was legally justified, some would say yes, some no. (The grand jury investigating the case declined to indict.) But if we ask whether the death of young Mr. Rice was a tragedy that we wish would never be repeated, all but the cretin, whose view can be safely ignored, would say yes. If we ask the first question—whether the officer is a murderer—we automatically stoke a partisan inferno that depends for its flame on adversarial finger-pointing. On the other hand, if we ask the second question—whether we can prevent the death of innocent children at the hands of the police—we invite collaborative, non-threatening discussions of, among other things, implicit bias, real and imagined danger, and police training. I would have thought it obvious that the second question is to be preferred. Yet it plays at most a tiny part in the public debate.
Of course, sometimes an officer ought to be prosecuted. Nothing I have written excludes that option. My objection is to the cultural disposition to make prosecution the first impulse that follows on the heels of almost every police shooting. I don’t get it, particularly since the evidence is now overwhelming that the prosecution will almost always end in the officer’s favor, either with a failure to bring charges or an acquittal at trial. Why would anyone expect it to be otherwise? A lifetime ago, the radical feminist Audre Lorde reminded us that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Law is an instrument of power, and anyone who expects it to be a neutral arbiter in a contest between the police and communities of color simply hasn’t been paying attention. As I have asked before (most recently after the acquittal of the Baltimore police officers tried for the death of Freddie Gray), why do so many expect a favorable outcome from a system that has never treated them equally?
On the day you read this, odds are the police will kill three people. Most of these killings will be legally and morally complex. I strongly suspect my plea will fall on deaf ears, but instead of instantly asking whether the officer is a monster or a hero, let’s ask whether tomorrow we can do better.