In Killing Them Softly, comedian Dave Chappelle explained how fearful he was to call the police when someone broke into his house. Now why would someone in a free country like America be afraid to call the police to their own home if they were the victim? Although a modest home, the house was too nice, Chappelle joked, “and they’d never believe I lived there.” He then imitated a white officer attacking him and sprinkling crack cocaine on his Black body as a cover-up.
While that fear and scenario may seem almost irrational to some, the reality of police terror is all too familiar to Black folk and other oppressed peoples in the United States. Yet many remain unconvinced that police brutality plagues our society due to their own biases. Skeptics argue reports of police brutality are exaggerated and sensationalized, and extreme force is justified to control crime. The lack of ‘evidence,’ or complete national statistics also makes this epidemic hard to prove.
Long before Michael Brown’s body was left for hours to bleed dry on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, Black people rang the alarm on racial profiling, the increased militarization of law enforcement, and being “staggered by the winds of police brutality” as Black bodies swung on trees like strange fruit. Due to protests surrounding the August shooting by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, and the subsequent heavy-handed response by paramilitary police, issues of racial profiling and police terrorism have re-entered the national debate in a way not seen since the filmed beating of Rodney King by LAPD in 1991.
Police Brutality: From Denzil Dowell to Michael Brown
The Black Panther Party (for Self-Defense) formed in Oakland in 1966 in response to police repression. The Panthers demanded an "We Want An Immediate End To Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People." The first issue of The Black Panther newspaper featured an investigation into the killing of Denzil Dowell by deputies in North Richmond. Oakland Police have shot and killed other young Black men like Lil Bobby Hutton (1968), Melvin Black (1979), Gary King, Jr. (2007). In Berkeley, police killed Black women like Anita Gay (2008) and Kayla Moore (2013). Earlier this year, two recent Black UC Berkeley graduates were attacked simply for “walking while Black.” After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Police officers shot and killed survivors seeking food, shelter and water.
Stolen Lives. Clockwise from bottom left: Oscar Grant, Aiyanna Jones, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride and Eric Garner were African Americans who were shot and killed while unarmed
On January 1, 2008, Oscar Grant was shot in the back by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle while he laid face down on the Fruitvale BART platform. If it not for fellow passengers watching the cops with their camera phones – and the film Fruitvale Station – we might not know Oscar Grant’s name. Without massive protests, Mehserle would never have been arrested. Two other Black men – Adolph Grimes or Robbie Tolan – were attacked within 24 hours of Oscar, but their stories are less known, though no less important. The groom Sean Bell was shot by undercover New York cops the night before his wedding. Seven-year-old Aiyanna Jones was shot in the head during a “no-knock” warrant at the wrong home in Detroit, during filming of First 48. And Atlanta police shot and killed 92-year-old grandmother Kathryn Johnson during a botched drug raid. There are countless other Stolen Lives whose names we do not know.
The recent assassination of Michael Brown by was no isolated incident. Weeks before, NYPD – of “stop and frisk” fame – choked Eric Garner to death with his dying words: “I can’t breathe.” His filmed execution looked like a scene from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Days earlier, police in Ohio killed John Crawford inside a suburban Wal-Mart for holding a BB gun he’d picked up on a shelf inside the same store. And just as the Richmond, California police department was touted for having no fatal officer-involved shootings since 2007, police shot and killed unarmed Richard Perez, III in September. It’s not an exaggeration when activists charge genocide. Again. With all the recent media attention police brutality, you may wonder: is police brutality really on the rise or if communications technology has made documenting police use of force easier.
'Operation Ghetto Storm'
In her book, No Doubt: The Murders of Oscar Grant, journalist Thandisizwe Chimurenga notes that despite the prevalence of state-sanctioned violence, data on police killings is incomplete. The Stolen Lives project does exist, but has not been updated since 2007. There is also a Wikipedia “List of killings by law enforcement in the United States.” While we ask, “How many Black Boys have to Die?” we must also ask: How many people are killed, tased or attacked by police every year and why?
Following the murder of Trayvon Martin by self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, in 2013 the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) released the groundbreaking report: “Operation Ghetto Storm: 2012 Annual Report on the Extrajudicial Killing of 313 Black People.” The report reveals the “deadly impact of systemic racism in the U.S.” and uses investigative journalism to contextualize the shootings, often justified by police and the stenographers posing as journalists who parrot them. “Every 28 hours in 2012 someone employed or protected by the US government killed a Black man, woman, or child!” the MXGM report begins. These “outrageous rates of extrajudicial killings” would be condemned elsewhere in the world. “The same outrage inside the U.S. also demands immediate action.” This report only covered the year 2012.
The MXGM report was recently bolstered when public interest investigative journalism organization ProPublica published a staggering multi-year analysis of the deadly force in the United States, in black and white. Analyzing federally collected data on police shootings, journalists found the likelihood of young Black males being shot by police was 21 times greater than for their white counterparts. The analysis of who gets killed, by whom, and for what purported reasons suggest police in the United States are still at war against Black America. However, the federal data leaves much to be desired. Absent a national police force, there are over 17,000 police agencies in the United States. Many never file the voluntary reports and many do so inconsistently. Thus, the FBI data is incomplete at best, flawed at worse. The data we have only shows the minimum.
MXGM’s effort is not without precedent. Pioneering journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett crusaded against extra-legal violence at the turn of the 20th century. In 1892, she published the pamphlet, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” She documented the atrocities as she debunked the lies used to justify the lynching of Black men. The Chicago Tribune and the Tuskegee Institute soon followed with their own annual tabulations of lynching statistics. In 1895, Wells published “The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States,” using the Tribune statistics and additional field reporting to uncover the truths behind lynch law.
In the 1930s, the NAACP would hang a flag out of its window to raise awareness to lynching.
When asked by friends how they could stop the shootings, hangings, and torture Black people, Wells always answered: “Tell the world the facts.” While data on the deaths of fallen officers is readily available, no reliable and valid federal data exists documenting use of force by those officers have sworn to protect and serve. The grassroots activism of Wells, the October 22 Movement, MXGM, and regular people–who under imminent danger film police–demonstrate the need for reliable quantitative and qualitative data.
Assessing the Damage
There are national statistics for car accidents, shark attacks, sexual assaults – albeit poorly investigated and enforced – and even the number of pigs living on this nation’s farms, as pointed out by the Washington Post's Wesley Lowery yet no one knows how often police shoot people each year. And we know even less about other uses of force, like phone book interrogations, Taserings, and beatings like that of Marlene Pinnock by a California Highway Patrol officer this summer are routinely swept under the rug. Police terrorism is not a case of a few bad apples, but systemic dehumanization. Having accurate data on police use of force could answer frequently asked questions: How often does use of force occur and where? Exactly how often do police shoot unarmed Black men? Which weapons were used and under what circumstances? More importantly, what can be done to eliminate officer-involved shootings and reduce use of force? Not to mention ways we can maintain officer safety, as well as restore trust in law enforcement?
Should Black parents buy their children bullet proof vests to protect their dreams?
Attorney General Eric Holder’s civil rights investigation into Ferguson must be expanded. The White House inquiry into police receiving more military-gear weapons is important. So is the need for more comprehensive data. Hopefully, police and their supports will welcome this opportunity to increase trust. Children shouldn't need bulletproof vests!
Local police forces should be required to report use of force opposed to voluntary submissions. In those cases where local police receive federal funds compliance should be mandatory. If Los Angeles School police want to keep those grenade launchers and rifles, they have to report. Those departments that fail to comply should be disarmed and disbanded. Compliance could require congressional action, but it is well warranted. Many of the many police agencies are small and may lack capacity to collect and report data, but leveraging the resources of academic and research institutions could alleviate this obstacle.
Research groups do exist, like the Police Executive Research Forum, and the libertarian Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project. Similar efforts have been attempted, but depend on media reports as sources, which often legitimate police violence. Instead of not reporting use of force, we hope law enforcement would not have any use of force encounters to report.
Open data on police use of force is not the cure, but one step towards eliminating violence in our society, improving public health, and protecting human rights. If they gun me down today and sprinkle crack on me tonight, they may come for you in the morning. And no one would even know.
Rasheed Shabazz is the author of “Police the Police: Melvin Black, Oscar Grant, and the Struggle for Civilian Oversight of Police in Oakland, California, 1979-2009.” He was a Communications Fellow at the Haas Institute in 2014.
The ideas expressed on the Haas Institute blog are not necessarily those of UC Berkeley or the Division of Equity & Inclusion, where the Haas Institute website is hosted. They are not official and not of one mind. Thoughts here are those of individual authors. We are committed to academic freedom, free speech and civil liberties.