10 31 2014
  6:18 pm  
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Meghan O'Donnell from St. Louis prays at the spot where Michael Brown was killed Photo by J.B. Forbes

PHOTO: Meghan O'Donnell, 29, from St. Louis, prays at the spot where Michael Brown was killed, Sunday evening, Aug. 10, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, J.B. Forbes)

Commentary

Since the death of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 10, attention has been riveted on the issue of police brutality. Some pundits were shocked to discover no national oversight of local police departments - and no national database of persons killed by law enforcement officers.

An Aug. 15 article in USA Today cited FBI estimates of 400 police-involved deaths per year. But it went on to note those estimates were based on a small fraction of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide - those that chose to report "justifiable police homicides."

Frankly, we're more interested in police homicides which are not justifiable. Who keeps that list?

For over a dozen years Wikipedia has crowdsourced a list of deaths caused by U.S. law enforcement officers. During August, we collaborated with 44 "Wikipedians" - the highly involved, active volunteers at the heart of Wikipedia - to source, distill and verify a comprehensive-as-possible list of people killed by U.S. law enforcement officers in August 2014, and add to what was already there for prior months and years. Names were culled from thousands of mainstream media articles. Each case was confirmed in at least one media source, often the paper of record for its community.

The total for August alone: 104 deaths.

You can review the list on Wikipedia as "List of killings by law enforcement officers in the United States, August 2014."

Of course, 104 per month, over 12 months, would come to 1,248 deaths - an annual count significantly higher than the FBI's estimate of 400.

The majority of those killed this August were, from all appearances, flat-out crooks - often armed, often shooting, often extremely dangerous - in situations where even hard-line pacifists and Buddhist monks would be tempted to grab a weapon and aim where it counts.

But a closer reading of the list will make an honest American cry.

Innocent bystanders died - three of them. Four officers committed suicide. Twelve, like Michael Brown, were under 21 - just starting out in life. Many - it's impossible to say how many, but quite clear it was too many - were affected by mental illness, alcohol or drugs. Law enforcement officers killed people with mental illness in Arizona, Michigan, Colorado, Maryland, Alabama, New Jersey, Kansas, our state of Oregon, Missouri, and California.

There were men killed while raging against their own families - wives, girlfriends, mothers, daughters, granddaughters. Often these men were drunk, and their final stupid act was pointing a gun at officers.

But then, there were others - and tragedy stretching beyond spilled blood and shattered families to media uninterest, a blue wall of silence, and the crush of universal inattention.

Joe Jennings, 18 and living in Kansas, wasn't out of the psych ward three hours before being shot to death.

John Crawford, a 22-year-old in suburban Dayton Ohio, was playing with a toy gun in a Walmart when he was shot and killed.

Diana Showman, 19, of San Jose, pointed a power drill at police, who shot and killed her. She had bipolar disorder.

According to witnesses, Ezell Ford, 24, of Los Angeles, was lying on the sidewalk, arms outstretched, when officers shot him to death. He had a mental illness.

Jeremy Lake, 19, of Tulsa, was killed by his girlfriend's parents - who were both Tulsa police officers.

We know police often make important mistakes in their first report to the media. That's understandable, considering the inevitable chaos surrounding any law enforcement officer-involved death. But sadly, the media often don't return to the first, unverified and mistake-prone stories to put things right. There have been instances, for example, of early reports saying, "He was armed." Later it develops there was never a weapon. This detail goes unreported, but is repeated by members of the public as justifying police actions.

The list had pathos, but also patterns.

More often than not, the shooter was a surprised sheriff's deputy in a rural area, without the organized training or immediate backup that may be available to urban counterparts.

Locating any racial patterns was more difficult. To make a fair determination, we searched for photographs or media descriptions of race for each person. But photographs are an unreliable source for race - and we urge better resourced researchers to take on the task and improve our results. We excluded those we could not determine (18), bystanders killed (3), murders (4), and suicides (4), leaving 75 on-duty intentional deaths.

Of these 75, 29 were white, 24 black, 20 Hispanic and two Asian, which means 61.3 percent of persons killed by law enforcement officers this August were people of color. The overrepresentation of non-whites on the list had no simple cause, outside of the cloudy, multi-platform failure we call "the U.S. criminal justice system."

Our list could be larger. We did not include deaths from chases or where people suicided when confronted by officers. No deaths from acute detox on the jail floor are listed, nor were executions. We were not able to track people critically injured by shootings who later died; their stories were not reported. Adding those deaths could increase the list by 30 or 40 persons.

Some of the dead, such as Kajieme Powell and Michelle Cusseaux, both people with mental illness, received significant press coverage. But usually local media reworked the police press release and moved on. Lazy, rushed, or indifferent - it's hard to tell.

In no instance during this one-month period did a district attorney announce any immediate investigation. No charges were filed in any on-duty killing; all deaths were deemed justifiable prior to investigation. No mayor apologized to grieving parents, spouses or children. For a few deaths, people marched in the streets. For others, not even a name was announced.

For all its deficits, we believe our survey offers the best answer so far to the question, "Who's getting killed by cops?"

And our results demand certain actions:

From local media, curiosity and follow-through. Reporters must avoid simple regurgitation of police talking points. They must publish the name of the person killed, the names of the officers involved. If this information is not available, they need to ask why.

The U.S. Department of Justice must survey all 17,000 law enforcement agencies, not just the handful that choose to report. We need full and accurate numbers, and gathering them should not be the province of the FBI; it is the DOJ that has an interest in civil rights and discrimination.

From local activists we need a unified voice insisting on police accountability for their communities - especially the suburban and rural areas where many of these deaths happen. This voice should come from a joining together of organizations representing persons of color and those representing persons with mental illness. In this way alone will we bring appropriate thoughtfulness, via recruitment and evidence-based training, to police agencies everywhere.

 

Jason Renaud is the producer of the documentary film Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse.

Jenny Westberg is a journalist, mother of four, and a board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland

 

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