The casual killing of blacks: When everyday activities trigger lethal force by the police

U.S. cops kill vastly more people per capita than many other police in the world. What's going on?

Published August 4, 2015 11:59AM (EDT)

St. Louis County Prosecutor's Office photo shows Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson photo taken shortly after August 9, 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, presented to the grand jury and made available on November 24, 2014.           (Reuters)
St. Louis County Prosecutor's Office photo shows Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson photo taken shortly after August 9, 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, presented to the grand jury and made available on November 24, 2014. (Reuters)

Not having a license plate on your vehicle, changing lanes to make way for a police cruiser, casually walking in the middle of the street: Apparently each of these actions has started a chain of events that has ended up with someone being killed by a police officer.  And that someone has, in each of these cases, been black.

When I heard about the killing of Samuel DuBose, the first thing that came to my mind was, “That is the absolute worst instance.”  But immediately after that I thought, “Well, I thought the same when Trayvon Martin was killed by a ‘security’ officer.”  In actuality, to say “that’s the worst” implies a trajectory of ever-increasing evil.  But the reality is that things have always been horrible in this country with regard to the casual killing of blacks.

To understand better the present situation, it’s important to start by widening our scope a bit.  A recent study and ongoing project of the highly respected U.K. newspaper the Guardian shows that U.S. police, overwhelmingly, are prone to kill people.  U.S. cops kill vastly more people per capita  than many other police in the world.  Here are just some of the figures published by the Guardian in the story “By the numbers: US police kill more in days than other countries do in years”:

Fact: In the first 24 days of 2015, police in the US fatally shot more people than police did in England and Wales, combined, over the past 24 years.

Behind the numbers: According to The Counted, the Guardian’s special project to track every police killing this year, there were 59 fatal police shootings in the US for the days between 1 January and 24 January.

According to data collected by the UK advocacy group Inquest, there have been 55 fatal police shootings – total – in England and Wales from 1990 to 2014.

The US population is roughly six times that of England and Wales. According to the World Bank, the US has a per capita intentional homicide rate five times that of the UK.

Fact: Police in the US have shot and killed more people – in every week this year – than are reportedly shot and killed by German police in an entire year.

Behind the numbers: The Counted database shows that the first week of 2015 had the fewest fatal police shootings of any this year, with 13.

The German Police University concluded in 2012 that German police had killed six people by gunshot in 2011 and seven in 2012.

According to the German data and the Guardian’s count, more unarmed black men (19) have been fatally shot by US police in 2015 than citizens of any race, armed or unarmed, fatally shot in Germany during all of 2010 and 2011 (15).

The US population is roughly four times that of Germany, and according to the World Bank, the US has a per capita intentional homicide rate five times that of Germany.

The list goes on and on.  Those interested in this issue should follow the Guardian’s regularly updated, highly useful database, “The Counted,” which gives the number of people killed by U.S. police as of the date of access (today, for this year, the figure is 672).  Data can be broken down by state, per capita, by gender, race, ethnicity, by cause, according to whether the person killed was armed or unarmed, and by name, for example, Freddie Gray. You will get full data on each case.

Clearly this is a startling set of data for those outside the United States, as well as for us.  One entirely plausible reason for this deadly phenomenon is that the U.S. population in general has vastly easier access to guns than people in any other country.  The Guardian concedes:  “It is undeniable that police in the US often contend with much more violent situations and more heavily armed individuals than police in other developed democratic societies.”  The accessibility of guns adds significantly to the volatility of many confrontations.  And yet two things have to be mentioned at this point.  First, there are clear laws governing the use of deadly force. Second, the disproportion of blacks killed still has to be accounted for, most especially of unarmed blacks.

An article titled “Deadly force: What Does the Law Say About When Police Are Allowed to Use It” presents the legal guidelines that were in place at the time of the killing of Mike Brown.  Most of the legal cases cited involve the use of deadly force on unarmed fleeing suspects.  The article’s most important findings are, first, “The Constitution does not permit police to fire at unarmed, nonviolent, fleeing suspects unless there is a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or the public.”  Second, “The U.S. Supreme Court imposed a constitutional limit on the police use of deadly force to apprehend unarmed fleeing felons in a 1985 case from Memphis where an African-American 8th grader was shot fleeing a home burglary…. When the court revisited the issue in the landmark 1985 Garner decision, it… [made] the point that many police departments were no longer relying on deadly force to stop fleeing felons.  For that reason, states no longer could claim that deadly force was standard police practice required for effective law enforcement.”  In other words, police who did use deadly force were deemed to be acting well outside the parameters set by their departments.

Where there is a potential conflict between state law and U.S. constitutional law, the U.S. Supreme Court has evoked the Fourth Amendment:

Tennessee, like most other states, had laws justifying the use of deadly force to stop the escape of a fleeing criminal suspect.  But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that those laws violated the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

Police use of deadly force was legally considered seizure under the Fourth Amendment and therefore had to be reasonable in light of all circumstances, the court ruled. It is unreasonable for police to use deadly force against a fleeing suspect unless the “officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

“It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape,” wrote Justice Byron White for the majority. “Where the suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others, the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not justify the use of deadly force to do so. …A police officer may not seize an unarmed, non-dangerous suspect by shooting him dead.”

What is fundamental is the issue of whether there was a reasonable assumption that the suspect presented a significant threat to anyone, police or otherwise.  It is precisely here that the interpretation of danger may be greatly influenced by the suspect’s race.  And here we get to the heart of the matter: Who will judge whether the officer or anyone else was actually endangered by the suspect?  On what basis is that determination to be made?  And what kinds of prejudices are likely to come into play?

Consider the case of Graham v. Connor, described in this article from the Washington Post, and the commentary after:

The first of the Supreme Court rulings that still govern law enforcement policies nationwide on the use of deadly force is Tennessee v. Garner. In the 1985 case, the court concluded that police officers could not shoot at a fleeing suspect simply to prevent their escape. They could shoot, however, if they had probable cause to believe the person was a violent felon and posed a significant threat of death or serious harm to the community.

The more overarching decision is the 1989 Graham v. Connor ruling, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and at a time when violence against police was rising amid a crack epidemic. In that case, Charlotte diabetic Dethorne Graham had rushed into a convenience store to get orange juice to stop an oncoming insulin attack but left the juice inside and left suddenly because of the long line. He asked a friend who had driven him to the store to instead drive him to another friend’s house for food.

Charlotte city police officer M.S. Connor, suspicious at Graham’s hasty exit, followed him and his friend, stopped them for questioning and didn’t believe Graham’s story about being diabetic. As Connor was checking by radio with the store, Graham got out of his car and passed out briefly. Backup officers arrived, told Graham to shut up and rammed his head into a patrol car while throwing him in the back of it.

Graham sustained minor injuries and argued that the officer’s use of force was excessive. But the Supreme Court found that the officer’s actions were justified because he reasonably believed the force he was using was necessary to prevent or detect a crime in progress.

Edward “Woody” Connette, the lawyer who represented Graham, is still troubled by the broad standard that endorsed police using “outrageous” force with an ill man.

“Somehow there ought to be a higher standard for deadly force,” Connette said. “But I just don’t think it’s possible with the courts we have.”

“The difficult thing is the application of the standard by a jury,” Connette said. “In most parts of the country, unless it’s a minority community or a highly-militarized area, juries tend to identify with police officers. They are our protectors. They are us.”

To sum up—the fact that everyday life and everyday activities are now possible starting points for lethal or near-lethal consequences for blacks and browns in the United States is predicated on at least these four things:

First, for whatever reasons, including most likely the easy accessibility of guns, police in the United States are vastly more inclined to use deadly force on people of any race. In other words, there seems to be in U.S. police forces a culture that accommodates, if not encourages, broad interpretation of the “threat” that is necessary to warrant deadly force.

Second, this applies particularly to black and brown “suspects,” as Sam Sinyangwe, a researcher and the activist who started the Mapping Police Violence project, notes:

Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police in the United States than white people. More unarmed black people were killed by police than unarmed white people last year. And that's taking into account the fact that black people are only 14% of the population here.

He adds: "I'm 24 years old. I'm a black man. It's incredibly depressing to see people just like me who have been killed.

I started the project to provide answers in the wake of the shooting of Mike Brown. It's very heavy to read these stories, and yet it feels like the right work to do. It's important.

There are statistics on all kinds of violent crimes. And yet, when it comes to people being killed by police officers, there's no data on that. So a light bulb went off in my head. I looked at two crowd-sourcing databases which collected all of the names. I then went through the media reports listing each of those people who were killed."

Sinyangwe counted 1,149 people of all ethnic groups killed by the police in 2014.

Third, the fact that police are more likely to shoot blacks and browns is predicated on biases, conscious or not.   In an interview with Lorie Fridell, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and former director of research at the Police Executive Research Forum, she notes:

"The original 'Shoot, Don't Shoot' studies have a subject sitting in front a computer monitor and photos pop up very quickly, showing either a white or black man. That man either has a gun in his hand or a neutral object like a cell phone. The subject is told 'if you see a threat, hit the 'shoot' key and if you don't see a threat, hit the 'don't shoot' key'. "

The studies suggest that implicit biases affect these actions - for example in some studies people are quicker to 'shoot' an unarmed black man than an unarmed white man. A Department of Justice report released in March looking at the use of deadly force by Philadelphia police, supports the idea that police are susceptible to implicit bias:

"One of the things they looked at is what they called threat perception failure. The officer believed that the person was armed and it turned out not to be the case. And these failures were more likely to occur when the subject was black [even if the officers were themselves black or Latino].”

Finally, we should consider that biases found in police officers are paralleled by the fact that juries tend to accept the explanations police give as to why they felt threatened, suggesting that those biases exist in juries as well.  What we find then is a vicious cycle among these four elements, and a reason why these killings continue unabated.

One conclusion would be that the racially inflected manner of seeing actions well within the norm of everyday life as potential starting points to an escalating situation of supposed threats that warrant deadly force, and that the fact that more unarmed blacks are killed than any other race and their killers often exonerated because juries accept their definition of “threat,” both point to the ways race affects our senses of how the world works.  But that is not the way justice is supposed to work at all.

By David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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Deadly Force Mike Brown Police Race Samuel Dubose Sandra Bland