Simon Williamson

The media’s laser focus

2014-11-26 09:10

Simon Williamson

The media’s laser focus on Ferguson, Missouri has sucked the life out of the broader problem of the deaths of black men at the hands of police, and zeroed in on one instance of it. We’ve given so much more of a shit about whether Michael Brown stole some cigarillos before his altercation with the cop that ultimately killed him than we have about just how many other men befell his fate.

The talking heads (including the president, nogal) are spending more time bloviating about riots in Ferguson than trying to record proper data about police killings, which surely must form some part of the solution, should anyone in government ever have the spine to take on the police unions. More adjectives have gone on how large Michael Brown was than on how the police are so well protected by the law that extrajudicial killing is practically legal. We're deliberately focussing on tiny parts of one incident ahead of the broader picture across the nation.

There can be no doubt that black Americans and white Americans are not treated equally before the law or its enforcers (I hereby open the gates of hell in the comments section). A ProPublica investigation of 12 000 police homicides over a 32-year period shows young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by the police than their white equivalents. This is not to say that white people are not unfairly shot by police, and there are, of course, instances in which the lives of police were in danger (again – decent data would be most useful).

Getting this information is not easy – police are well protected legally when it comes to dishing out lethal force, and oversight of America’s 17 000 law enforcement agencies is, to use a euphemism, opaque.

What you’ll also find countrywide is an absolute hesitance to even charge police officers – which would implicitly necessitate an investigation – who have killed people.

As I keep saying, data on this is rancidly poor, and has been for generations – law enforcement agencies only provide police use of lethal force statistics on a voluntary basis – and a consensus of experts, according to Politifact,
believes this massively undercounts the problem of how many black people are killed at the hands of police. It also doesn’t allow for comparative data.

But the data do show that police are hardly ever charged with anything. According to a study from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, again identified by Politifact, between the years of 2005 and 2011, 81 police incidents resulted in a charge of murder or manslaughter. Over the same period, the FBI reported 2 695 “justifiable homicides”. There’s nothing that says whether these were justifiable or not other than the FBI deciding so, so beware of the label.

That gives us, as minimum, 81 policemen charged out of a minimum of 2 695 incidents (because “non-justifiable” homicides are conveniently not counted). And, in fact, grand juries are very unlikely to indict police at all, whereas they almost always do so for civilians.

To summarise this all: police are protected legally to use lethal force, they kill young black men disproportionately, they are charged with a crime in a minuscule number of cases, and the data that could show this empirically is not recorded properly.

Add that when we can control for specific crimes, such as marijuana arrests, the justice system is as racially subjective as law enforcement. Black Americans are arrested at a higher rate for crimes committed at the same frequency by white people, they are given longer sentences, and have a higher probability of receiving the death penalty. 43.48% of the USA’s prisoners are black; blacks make up 12.6% of the general population.

This is so much bigger than the killing of Michael Brown; a grand jury deciding against charging the police officer should not be the end of this story. The obsessive nature of the media’s highly specific coverage here has turned this from a nationwide problem into litigating aspects of this case.

Even if Michael Brown was brandishing a gun (which he wasn’t), or beat the hell out of Officer Wilson (which he didn’t), this should not get stuck in Ferguson.

To limit media coverage to Ferguson would be sinful, when this country is a police state for black Americans.


- Simon Williamson is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. He previously worked on the campaign of Michelle Nunn, a Democratic candidate for Georgia’s US Senate seat in 2014. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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