This is a somewhat complicated issue that can’t be easily summarized in just a few words: suspected racism in the police force resulting in seemingly unfair shootings and deaths of African American civilians. This is quite a hot issue in recent times – a flame that might have blazed even more if not for a Presidential election taking the spotlight. Police shootings aren’t all that uncommon, at least not according to some data collected by The Washington Post which suggests that 991 deaths by police occurred in the year 2015. That’s a lot of officer-involved deaths – a rate of almost three per day.
Yet recently, police have been catching a lot of flak for these deaths. Admittedly, there have been some questionable deaths at police hands as of late, and the media has been focused strongly on those deaths of African Americans. These publicized deaths have sparked a large outrage at police misconduct with many claims of police protecting each other and defending dirty cops, as well as police not receiving enough training and simply not being capable of making the right call in the heat of the moment.
These accusations and the resulting civil unrest in the American community have only served to divide us all. The publicity mostly comes as a result of the formation of a group named Black Lives Matter. It appeared shortly after the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida (Goodwin 2016), which wasn’t even a police-involved death. The goal of the movement was to bring the supposed inequality of African Americans to the surface of media and the attention of Americans. However, their methods of dealing with the situation haven’t always been helpful, and the continued fueling of this issue is affecting all of our safety. Those who feel threatened by police or don’t feel like they can rely on them are taking matters into their own hands. The trust in our police forces is dropping, and African Americans who feel targeted are refusing to cooperate.
Everyone thinks that something needs to be done, but no one can decide on what action will solve the problem, especially considering the FBI doesn’t even have any data that would shed some light on the issue (“US police shootings” 2016). However, they are planning to start collecting this data in 2017 so they can get a better idea of what is happening within police departments and better analyze police habits across the nation (Gidman 2016). Until the FBI can get a grasp on this issue, the tasks of correcting the problem with continue to be in the hands of individual police departments, and incidents will continue to occur.
The concept map is a visual representation of how many of the components of this issue connect together and lead back to the main issue at hand. The titles of each component in the map are color-coded based on what type of issue they represent. A circle at the right-hand side of the title in a different color indicates that the component could also be considered under that type. Each component is connected to at least one other with a short text blurb at the end of the arrow indicating how the two components are related to each other. Social roles appear in blue, social inequalities appear in green, social biases or beliefs appear in yellow, and social conditions appear in red.
Focusing on police officers – a role within the issue comprising of people accused of an array of misdeeds – a lot of people don’t fully understand just what it takes to be a police officer. Most importantly, police training focuses very heavily on maintaining the safety of the officer first, rather than the safety of the civilians. That already sounds bad, and a lot of people see it as bad, but it is quite logical when looking at the bigger picture. Police need to protect themselves first because if they don’t and something happens to them, then they can’t protect others anymore either.
In order to ensure their own protection, police are trained to assume everything they encounter is dangerous until proven otherwise (personal communication, Fall 2008). When they perform a traffic stop, they cautiously approach the car looking through all the windows to get an idea of all its occupants and spot any weapons that might be in the car. When leaving, they back away to a safe spot before turning around, continuing to look back occasionally to make sure nothing odd is happening. These same precautions can easily be applied to other situations too. When confronting someone in the street, a park, or at their home, you can just never know how dangerous they might be. Police keep their hands near their weapon as much as possible so they can quickly respond to any escalation, they keep their distance from the subject so that the subject couldn’t possibly overpower them, and they make subjects take a seat on the curb or a step so that it’s harder for the subject to get up and run away or attack them (personal communication, Fall 2008). Standard operating procedure works great until bias is introduced into the equation.
It’s no question that African Americans have long been discriminated against throughout their history in the United States. Their race is already an inherited inequality that makes it harder for them to live, get jobs, and function efficiently in our society. While that’s not their fault, these inequalities often lead African Americans who are lesser off to a life in prison. According to Aaron Bandler, African Americans end up charged with the majority of crimes that occur in major population centers, despite only making up a small percentage of those populations (2016). That’s a disturbing statistic that can cause police to have a more biased view of African Americans that may make them look more suspicious or threatening, resulting in trickier and sometimes more volatile situations.
Considering this bias, it’s not unusual for police to reach for their weapons at the first sign of trouble – thinking back to their training and wanting to preempt any action that might harm them. But when that gun gets fired, it becomes an entirely different story because police are trained to follow “shoot to kill” procedures. Don’t shoot their hand to try and disarm them, don’t shoot their leg to prevent them from running, don’t shoot into the sky to scare them. If an officer needs to fire their weapon, they are firing their weapon to eliminate the threat, which means aiming for center mass or the head in order to kill them (personal communication, Fall 2008). That can sound extreme to many people who would probably claim that wounding them is a far better option, and that there’s no reason to take such drastic measures. But again, police need to protect themselves and if they get shot and killed, then they can’t protect others.
Unfortunately, we don’t actually know how often police pull the trigger, particularly because the FBI has never collected data on how many shootings occur in the United States, let alone how many are fatal, what race they all were, or anything else that would be useful in analyzing this social issue, as admitted by FBI Director James Comey in October of 2015 (“US police shootings” 2016). For now, The Washington Post has compiled a database of information and statistics based on various news articles about police shootings that occurred throughout the year. According to that data, cops killed nearly twice as many Caucasians as African Americans in 2015 (Bandler 2016). This interesting information doesn’t stand alone either. A 2015 report of the Philadelphia Police Department conducted by the Department of Justice found that African American and Hispanic officers in the department were more likely to fire at African Americans than their fellow Caucasian officers, and FBI data has shown that a police officer is over eighteen times as likely to be killed by an African American than the other way around (Bandler 2016). None of this information seems to align with that of the media.
The media likes ratings, and they publish things that will get them viewers and higher ratings even if it’s somewhat inaccurate. The word “inaccurate” isn’t quite the right word to use here, either. Technically speaking, they are not broadcasting false information – it is actual data they’ve found, at least in most cases – but are broadcasting misleading information. Using a bit of skill, the media can get any data to tell any story they want, even if it’s complete nonsense. Even The Washington Post used their own data to generate statistics that suggested unarmed African Americans are more likely to be shot by police officers than unarmed Caucasian men (Bandler 2016). The untrained eye might not question that statistic, but a quick look into what they qualified as “unarmed” tells a very different story. Their categorization of unarmed civilians killed by police also consist of accidents which have nothing to do with racism, nothing to do with police training, and nothing to do with this issue whatsoever. Examples of this include accidental misfires from someone attempting to attack an officer or reach for their weapon, offenders who were trying to get to a weapon but didn’t quite make it, and even bystanders who are accidentally shot by stray bullets – people who the police weren’t even aiming at but just happened to be African American and happened to die on an off-chance.
All of this misleading media information especially benefits one group: Black Lives Matter. This group appeared shortly after the death of Trayvon Martin (which was not itself a police-involved death – he was killed by a civilian) with the goal of bringing the issue of unarmed African Americans being killed at the hands of Caucasian men to front and center focus (Goodwin 2016). The group quickly grasped onto the continued deaths of African Americans and police hands, exacerbating the issue each and every time it arose in any remotely peculiar circumstances. With all the media attention, it also sparked other individuals to want to refocus the attention onto all individuals, of all races, who die unjustly resulting in another group named All Lives Matter, but it was mostly met with disdain due to many racist individuals using the secondary movement as a disguise to spread their beliefs, resulting in it receiving very negative connotations which further fueled and angered African Americans (Goodwin 2016).
This long chain all leads back to the core social issue, which is also a widely held belief among African Americans – that they are being institutionally discriminated against and targeted by police. But given all the information, it’s hard to argue that’s entirely true. Part of the problem of why no one believes it’s untrue is because of the inherent inequality and bias that the police officers themselves possess. As sworn officers, they earn the trust and respect of all their fellow officers, their department, and the courts where they must testify. It’s hard to argue against a prestige so great, and African Americans don’t always believe their concerns are being heard, which is part of what Black Lives Matter aims to do – make their concerns heard and make sure justice is done (Goodwin 2016). That can be rather difficult, especially when accusing police who haven’t actually done anything wrong or, worse, encouraging African Americans not to cooperate with police. In fact, one case which went before a judge resulted in that judge declaring that African Americans have “legitimate reason” to fear police, giving them free reign to flee when they believe they’ve done nothing wrong (Enwemeka 2016). Given police training, that will only lead them to become more suspicious and suspect they have done something wrong or have something to hide and the process starts over again.
Black Lives Matter wants that to change, and hopefully everyone else does too. They’re hoping to accomplish this by challenging the status quo of how police operate. They’re challenging their training and whether it’s enough for the jobs they face, or even accurate. Do they really need to treat everyone as suspicious? Do they really need to shoot to kill? Further, are they even well-enough trained to be able to react in the moment and make a split-second decision to take someone’s life? But they’re challenging these things based on misguided ideologies. It’s unlikely that police training is going to change. Police need to treat situations suspiciously and they need to shoot to kill in order to protect themselves and others, and it’s pretty hard to train anyone to be able to make the perfect decision in a two-second time window every single time. There are other important and appropriate challenges being made though. They’re challenging how investigations of officer-involved deaths are handled, to make sure that an unbiased outcome is guaranteed and that those who do make inappropriate decision are held accountable. While many departments hand off such investigations to other nearby departments or even the FBI, not all do, and that’s an incredible conflict of interest for the department due to their inherent trust of fellow officers. They’re also challenging departments to weed out truly racist officers and get rid of them to make sure the department is free of discriminatory thoughts.
All of these challenges will hopefully lead to some true change. Eliminating all the bad apples in the police force will restore civilian faith in those departments, especially among the African Americans who feel so targeted by them. As well, more well-conducted investigations and actual trials of officers who are found to be at fault would make them feel like their voices are heard and that the government is acting in the best interests of all rather than just standing by the side of their police departments. The FBI already plans to start collecting data on police shootings in 2017 in order to prevent information blackouts in the future (Gidman 2016). Hopefully this data collection will also bring their attention to cases of inappropriate shootings and get them involved in the investigation process whether the department brings them in or not. Nevertheless, solving these core issues would help to make African Americans feel safe and protected by police, and thus more willing to cooperate with them. These changes may not completely eliminate the problem, but they’re at least a step in the right direction.
US police shootings: How many die each year? (2016, July 18). BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36826297. The Washington Post. (2015). 2015 Washing Post database of police shootings. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings/. Bandler, A. (2016, July 7). 5 Statistics You Need To Know About Cops Killing Blacks. The Daily Wire. Retrieved from http://www.dailywire.com/news/7264/5-statistics-you-need-know-about-cops-killing-aaron-bandler. Gidman, J. (2016, October 4). ‘Embarrassing’ Era Ending: FBI to Collect Cop Shooting Stats. Newser. Retrieved from http://www.newser.com/story/232542/fbi-to-start-gathering-cop-gun-violence-data-in-2017.html. Enwemeka, Z. (2016, September 20). Mass. High Court Says Black Men May Have Legitimate Reason To Flee Police. WBUR News. Retrieved from http://www.wbur.org/news/2016/09/20/mass-high-court-black-men-may-have-legitimate-reason-to-flee-police. Goodwin, G. (2016, October 10). All Lives Matter: A racist response to a race problem in America. Detroit Metro Times. Retrieved from http://www.metrotimes.com/Blogs/archives/2016/10/10/all-lives-matter-a-racist-response-to-a-race-problem-in-america. (Omaha Police Department Post 591 Explorers Program, personal communication, Fall 2008).