The shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in the predominantly African American St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, has once again opened the racial fault line in the United States. But the racial issues in this tragic episode also help show the need for improved police accountability, an issue that ought to find common ground among Americans of all races.
Amidst the voluminous coverage of Brown’s death, two striking facts have emerged:
* The number of Americans killed by police each year is simply unknown. The commonly cited figure of about 400 deaths per year is based on incomplete information provided to the Justice Department and is almost certainly lower than the actual figure, as elaborated here by FiveThirtyEight visual journalist Reuben Fischer-Baum.
* The number of such homicides found to be unjustifiable is also unknown, but clearly low. FBI statistics suggest that at least 90 percent of the killings are found justifiable; experts say the number found to be unjustifiable is vanishingly small.
Criminologists have long complained about this statistical gap. “There is no national database for this type of information, and that is so crazy,” Geoff Alpert, a professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, told USA Today. “We've been trying for years, but nobody wanted to fund it and the police departments didn't want it."
The USA Today story written by reporters Kevin Johnson, Meghan Hoyer and Brad Heath notes that the Justice Department statistics are compiled by reports from only 750 out of the 17,000 local law enforcement agencies nationwide. With that limitation, the reporters nevertheless teased out the estimate that about 96 African American civilians were killed by white police officers on average each year during the period 2003-2012 covered by the statistics.
In short, Michael Brown’s killing on Aug. 9 “was not an isolated event,” the story understated. African Americans already knew that. That is why, as many African American families have recounted in recent days, black parents feel the need to caution their young children about the dangers of sassing-while-black.
Even without reliable statistics about the outcomes in other cases, most African Americans lack confidence that justice will be done in the investigation of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for Brown’s death. A survey by Pew Research Center (Aug. 14-17) found that 18 percent of blacks surveyed had “a great deal” or “some” confidence in the investigation, compared to 76 percent who had “not too much” or “not at all.” A New York Times poll (Aug. 19-20) found somewhat greater confidence: 35 percent compared to 59 percent registering no or little confidence.
In both surveys, more white Americans had confidence in the investigation, but the results were by no means a ringing endorsement of the officials in Ferguson and St. Louis County. Pew found that one-third of white respondents lacked confidence in the investigation; in the Times poll, 28 percent of whites registered doubts.
Missteps by the Ferguson and St. Louis County authorities have fed those doubts. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson waited six days to identify Wilson as the officer “involved” in the shooting. He disclosed the name only after first releasing a videotape that purportedly shows Brown less than an hour before his death shoplifting cigars from a local convenience store.
Jackson explained to the assembled reporters that he released the supposedly incriminating video of Brown “because you asked for it.” Later, U.S. Justice Department officials said they had urged Jackson not to release the tape for fear inflaming the already heated feelings in Ferguson. At different points, Jackson has given different answers on whether Wilson had known of the suspected robbery when he initially stopped Brown.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had to file sunshine law requests to obtain police reports on the shooting. The St. Louis County report contained essentially nothing; the incident report from the Ferguson police was heavily redacted.
To date, the department has also failed to release any medical records to resolve the important dispute over the extent of any injuries that Wilson might have suffered in whatever altercation with Brown occurred. The official autopsy also is undisclosed, but a private autopsy conducted by a nationally prominent medical examiner at Brown’s parents’ request shows six bullet wounds, including two to his head.
In the two weeks since the shooting, news media have located eyewitnesses some with phone-recorded videos who say Brown was attempting to surrender when Wilson began firing. A damning video shows Wilson standing all but motionless as Brown lay on the ground, unattended to.
The episode underscores the arguments for pending proposals to routinely equip police officers with body cameras. Departments that have instituted the practice say that they actually help officers defend against unwarranted accusations of abusive behavior. Civil liberties groups hope that the cameras would deter abusive behavior in the first place.
The parallel local and federal investigations will not be completed quickly, nor is there any guarantee that the results of the investigation or any eventual trial will be universally accepted as just. Truth and justice are both more elusive than often assumed. For now, however, the authorities in Ferguson and St. Louis County are on trial, and white and black Americans alike are entitled to expect that they do their best to ensure that justice is done.