It’s very clear that immediate change is needed when dealing with fatal law-enforcement encounters.
That’s the best word to describe the feeling one gets from spending much time at all on Fatal Encounters, the website that Reno News & Review editor D. Brian Burghart founded to aggregate information about incidents in which police killed citizens.
Shocking, because he found it necessary to do so in the first place. You’d think that, in this government data-crazy age, someone—the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the various state police agencies, even local law enforcement—would be keeping track of how many people are killed by police.
And shocking because police killings are typically treated as local matters, which means that the larger pattern doesn’t become visible until, all at once, it does.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the Ferguson protesters. By bringing Michael Brown’s death to the national consciousness, we have become just a little bit less willing to slide over the news reports of people killed by police with a passing thought of, “Oh, yeah, I guess that happens.”
But the aftermath of that particular police killing—because it brought issues of race, injustice, militarized police departments and the lack of police accountability to the forefront—has done us the favor of asking us to look, and look closely, at what is happening in our name.
Law-enforcement officers need to defend themselves. They have a dangerous job, and we understand that. But it’s become apparent—not just in the case of Michael Brown, but also those of Eric Garner and John Crawford and Tamir Rice—that there are some deep-seated problems with police use of force that don’t seem to be limited to one geographic area.
And, as anyone who’s seen the video of a local sheriff’s deputy beating a man with a flashlight in Carmichael earlier this month, these questions of use of force are relevant for us, too.
For too long, we’ve allowed ourselves to think that people who are killed or harmed by police must have done something wrong. But does anyone really think that mental illness, or shoplifting, or car theft, or outstanding warrants on burglaries, or—for crying out loud—selling loose cigarettes on the street demands an immediately executed death sentence?
That Burghart’s database contains mostly men—black men in population centers and mentally ill men in less-populated areas—should also be shocking, since this highlights ongoing social problems of discrimination and disenfranchisement.
We know that 14 California law-enforcement officers lost their lives in the line of duty in 2014. We value and respect their service, and do not seek in any way to demean the loss of their lives.
But it’s also shocking that Burghart’s database includes 128 people killed by police in California in 2014.
This ought to make us terribly, terribly angry. And that anger must be channeled to change.
We need, at the very least, a statewide registry of injuries and deaths associated with law-enforcement encounters. We also need a local citizen review board, empowered to investigate the use of force by local law-enforcement agencies.
These changes are necessary, because the current lack of transparency? It’s not just shocking. It’s obscene.