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OpEdge: Killed by Police and Killing Police

Marc Jampole
July 12, 2016

There’s No Relationship, But Both Are a National Tragedy

by Marc Jampole

dontshoot.image_-643x429THOSE like Rudy Giuliani who believe that the Black Lives Matter movement has led to an increase in violence against police officers have not read the statistics. Killings of American police officers are way down, from 27.88 per 100,000 to 7.16 per 100,000 since 1976. Fewer police fatalities have occurred during the presidency of Barack Obama than under the presidency of George W. Bush, which in turn saw fewer police killed than during the Clinton years, which experienced fewer police murders than under Reagan. During these forty years, there have been occasional blips up, because no trend proceeds in a smooth fashion. Only fools and liars point to one cold winter to assert global warming is not occurring, and it would be equally foolish or mendacious to look at any six-month period during the past four decades to deny a long-term trend. The decline in police fatalities pretty much tracks the overall decline in crime since the 1970s.

The math is simple: The Black Lives Matter movement can’t lead to an increase in something that isn’t increasing.

Behind the idea that a movement to get the police to refrain from racially based excessive violence would embolden people to start shooting at cops is the unspoken idea that the police need to kick a little ass -- or, I should say, kill a little ass -- once in a while to keep the peace. The same people routinely defend racial profiling and the application of stop-and-frisk policies in minority neighborhoods, two discredited policing techniques. It’s not the first time that a false idea masks racism in American public debates.

We know that fewer police officers are being killed nowadays, not more. What about the idea behind Black Lives Matter, that innocent blacks suffer a disproportionately high number of fatalities at the hands of the police? Is that also a myth? On its surface, a new study by a Harvard economics professor seems to prove that nationwide police officers display no racial bias in their use of guns. Too bad, the study has many flaws including: 1) It analyzed only incidents after the victims were in police custody; 2) it measured the use of firearms, not deaths in custody; 3) all “non-gun related” force by police showed an extreme racial violence, being used on blacks much more frequently than on whites; 4) researchers studied only 4 percent of the population. No, this survey does not in any way disprove the contention that blacks suffer more deaths per capita at the hands of police than whites do. Meanwhile, other evidence strongly demonstrates that young black men are nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers.

There is very little that connects the awful killing of five police officers in Dallas with the equally horrifying killings by police of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in a St. Paul, Minnesota suburb, except that all three -- like Orlando, Newtown, San Bernadino and the deaths of Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Michel Brown, Eric Garner and thousands more -- are national tragedies.

While guns were used in all three of these recent acts of violence, our society does want the police to carry firearms. Firearms have never been the problem in the numerous cases of unnecessary police violence against people of color. The problem has been how the firearms have been used -- not to protect, not to defend, and not to disarm, but to kill as if the victims were not an American citizen the police officers had sworn to protect, but foreign soldiers on the battlefield.

The ways to stop police violence against citizens, and violence against police, have virtually nothing in common. Reducing one will not lead to an increase in the other, nor will reducing one lead to a reduction of the other.

Ending racially based excessive violence by police against innocent citizens will take a complicated combination of training, new recruitment technique,s and punishments. We have to educate police officers to shoot to disarm, not to kill, to understand the culture of the neighborhoods they patrol, to learn how to de-escalate situations, and to analyze threats and possible perps without racial bias or cultural bias. We have to stop orienting police recruitment material to people who like to fight (soldiers) and start gearing it to people who want to protect and defend. Finally, we have to stop letting police who harm people of any color with excessive force literally get away with murder.

By contrast to the complicated mix of training, recruitment and punishment that will reduce the number of murders by police, to continue to decrease murders of police is relatively easy: Pass stricter gun control laws.

Every study that has ever been done on the issue comes to the same conclusion. The more guns there are in a society, the more people are hurt and killed. The fewer guns there are in a society, the fewer people are killed and hurt by guns. Ipso facto, reducing the number of guns in society will reduce all gun violence, including against police officers.

My caveat is that the overwhelming number of gun deaths and injuries in America (and elsewhere) are from suicides and home accidents. Simple math tells us that you are much safer living in the worst neighborhood in Chicago without a gun in the house than living anywhere with a gun in the house. So police officers will represent very few of the large number of reduced deaths we could anticipate from limiting the number of guns people can own, outlawing automatic weapons, making gun owners take exams before getting licenses, establishing a mandatory federal database and requiring a one-week wait for all gun purchases. But then again, very few of the current 35,000 or so U.S. deaths a year from firearms are currently police officers.

Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer who runs Jampole Communications, a public relations and communications firm in Pittsburgh. He blogs several times a week at OpEdge.