The best is enemy of the good.
The profoundest truths are paradoxical.
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Tamir Rice: How Often Do Cops Use Lethal Force Due To Citizens' Unwarranted Suspicions?
There’s a temptation to see a Cleveland grand jury’s failure to indict the officers responsible for the death of Tamir Rice—coming, as it did, on the three hundred and sixty-second day of the year—as a last-minute addition to a grim year-end list in racial injustice. Rice, a twelve-year-old African-American boy, was shot last November by a white police officer, Timothy Loehmann, who was responding to a 911 call; Rice was carrying a pellet gun. Just more than a week ago, a Texas grand jury declined to indict officers in the suspicious death of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who was pulled over by the police in Prairie View, arrested for the alleged assault of an officer, and, days later, found dead in her cell. In late November, video surfaced of a Chicago police officer, Jason Van Dyke, firing sixteen shots at Laquan McDonald in a case that was initially reported by the police as an instance of self-defense. This summer, we saw video of Walter Scott’s death at the hands of a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer, Michael Slager, and then, just a few miles away, the mass shooting of nine congregants at Emanuel A.M.E. Church. In April, a judge declined to convict an off-duty Chicago police officer who, after purportedly mistaking a cell phone for a handgun, shot two unarmed African-Americans. One of them, twenty-two-year-old Rekia Boyd, later died of her wounds.
Time and again this year, we’ve seen a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of public outrage tapped, indignation pouring into the streets, with demands for justice and, more commonly than not, the flushed image of an elected official counselling calm in the wake of outcomes that confirm the most cynical perspectives about race in this country. We have exhausted a thesaurus of options in our attempts to describe these cyclical flashpoints, each of them unique, each of them warranting a clear portrait of its particulars, and yet all of them numbingly related—like a racialized version of “Groundhog Day.”
Video released by the Cleveland district attorney’s office indicates that Officer Loehmann shot Rice within two seconds of arriving on the scene. The video also shows that Rice appears to reach into his waistband as the officers arrive, placing Loehmann in the position of making a split-second decision about whether or not he was in mortal danger. This is a complicated calculus under the best of circumstances. It is compounded by that fact that, as theWashington Post reported, police tend to significantly overestimate the age and dismiss the potential innocence of black youths.
The conservative counterpoint to the conversation about excessive force has been a specious narrative of a war on police. Spurred by high-profile incidents like the heinous killings of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in New York City, last December, and the ambush, in August, of Deputy Darren Goforth, in Houston, this belief has become a conservative truism. In October, an organization in Louisiana began running “Blue Lives Matter” advertisements on billboards across the country. But in 2015, preliminary estimates suggest that there were thirty-nine police deaths as a result of shootings, seven fewer than last year, and part of a welcome multi-decade trend toward fewer deaths of law-enforcement officers.
By contrast, two hundred and sixteen unarmed civilians, seventy-two of whom were black, were killed by police this year. In 2008, the last year in which the Department of Justice conducted a census, there were seven hundred and sixty-five thousand law-enforcement officers in the United States and fifty-four violent fatalities among police. The per-capita death rate for police that year was seven per hundred thousand; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention records homicide deaths of African-American men that year at just under thirty-five per hundred thousand. Police are asked to risk their lives to protect public safety. It is also true that a black male civilian is more likely to die as a result of violence than a police officer. The great majority of those deaths come at the hands of other civilians, typically other black men. But it’s also worth understanding that the unrequited outrage that echoed in the streets of the United States this year was an attempt to highlight a reciprocal fact. Skin is a uniform, too.
Timothy McGinty, the prosecutor in Cleveland, referred to Rice’s death as a “perfect storm of human error,” but that presumes that the circumstances that led to a twelve-year-old’s death are rare. It’s more accurate to think of them as a kind of default setting. Last year, John Crawford was killed in an Ohio Walmart by police who were summoned to the scene by reports of a black male holding a firearm. Police shot Crawford, who was examining an air rifle in one of the aisles, within seconds of arriving. Ohio allows citizens to open-carry firearms in public. As in the case with Rice, the legal right to carry a weapon was nullified by the realities of race and public perception. It’s easy to think of these circumstances as matters of policing, but in both cases the police were acting upon the perceptions of callers who saw armed black men and deduced a criminal threat. The police became simply the final and most lethal vectors of a much broader public suspicion.