We do not know the total number of people killed by law enforcement each year, much less the racial demographics of those victims. But we do know two things: Too many people are killed by law enforcement in the United States, and there is a widespread perception that communities of color are suffering disproportionately.
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report — which includes data from just 750 of the nation’s 17,000 law enforcement agencies — there were 461 justifiable homicides committed by law enforcement officers in 2013. The website Killed by Police, in an attempt at a more complete tally, counted 768 cases — an average of two a day. In that same year, British police officers fired their weapons on just three occasions and killed no one. According to The Economist, “Even after adjusting for the smaller size of Britain’s population, British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans.”
In Australia, where officers do carry firearms, “There have been 105 persons fatally shot by police” since 1989, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology.
In Germany, police fired a total of 85 bullets in all of 2011. According to Der Spiegel, “49 were warnings shots, 36 were aimed at criminal suspects, 15 people were injured, and six were killed.” On April 25, 2012, two NYPD officers fired 84 times at one suspect alone, Steven Murray.
Murray had murdered his sleeping little sister, shot his mother three times, refused to drop his gun and instead fired at the arresting officers. His own mother identified him to the police as “the animal who shot me and killed my daughter.” But what does it say when two American cops use as much ammo to bring down one man as all the cops in Germany used in an entire year?
Earlier this month, James B. Comey, current director of the FBI, delivered a passionate speech at Georgetown University that garnered widespread attention. In his speech, he said, “We all, white and black, carry various biases around with us.” There is racism in America; only a fool would deny that. But fixing racism is one problem; fixing policing is another. Comey continued, “Racial bias isn’t epidemic in law enforcement any more than it is epidemic in academia or the arts. In fact, I believe law enforcement overwhelmingly attracts people who want to do good for a living — people who … do some of the hardest, most dangerous policing to protect people of color.”
If people want to grandstand, they disregard the common sense solutions. Those who are truly interested in fixing problems with policing will set aside the unanswerable questions for now and first focus on what we know will make things better. Here are a few ways in which we can improve policing in the United States.
First, we must ensure that “bad cops” have no place on the force. To do so, police academies must restore their once high graduation standards. Since the 1980s, court-ordered, overarching affirmative action programs have led to significantly reduced standards and in turn less qualified officers of every race and gender. Indeed, in recent decades, there has been significant pressure to eliminate the exams used to screen officers’ mental aptitude on the grounds that minorities tend to achieve lower pass rates. The result has been easier questions, lower pass scores and, in some cases, no tests at all. According to Michael Markman, New York Police Department Chief of Personnel, physical fitness requirements have also been significantly reduced out of fear of lawsuits from minority applicants and women. Former NYPD chief Michael Julian even attested that some officers hired under the relaxed testing lack the strength to pull the trigger on a gun. There are many benefits to having a force that mirrors the demographics of its general population; however, diversity of officers should not be prioritized over quality of officers.
In a massive study, renowned economist and former Yale Law School professor John Lott tracked crime rates in the 19 major cities where police departments implemented affirmative action decrees between 1987 and 1990. His results were starling: a one percent increase in the number of black officers was accompanied by a four percent increase in the property-crime rate and an almost five percent increase in violent crimes. The problem was not with minority cops alone, Lott’s study showed, but rather with less qualified officers of every race. He also found that each 1 percent increase in the number of white female officers on a police force increased the number of shootings of civilians by 2.7 percent. Indeed, it is ironic that much of people’s frustration with the police in recent months has emanated from politically correct, facial, affirmative action policies that many of the same people would overwhelmingly support.
Next, the police must ensure that officers who abuse their power are held accountable. While larger jurisdictions can employ prosecutors solely to investigate officers suspected of breaking the law, the nation’s smaller forces are less likely to have that degree of oversight. In those departments, cops suspected of wrongdoing are instead investigated by the same prosecutors with whom they work day in and day out. That is case for half of America’s local police forces, which have fewer than 10 officers.
And we must ensure those bad cops stay off the force. Today, when officers are fired for misconduct, their unions are able to get many of them their jobs back, often through secretive appeals. In 2007, Hector Jimenez, an officer in Oakland, shot and killed an unarmed 20-year-old man. Seven months after that, he shot and killed another unarmed man, this time shooting the man three times in the back as he ran away. Oakland paid a $650,000 settlement to the dead man’s family and fired Jimenez. Jimenez appealed through his police union and despite having killed two unarmed men and cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, he was reinstated and given back pay. Conservatives have rightfully criticized teachers unions for their similar but certainly non-lethal abuses of power, which make it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers; it would be hypocritical of us not to apply the same treatment to police unions. Police unions must prioritize public safety over labor rights.
Finally, we must ensure that the “good cops” receive the best training possible. This training should educate recruits to better handle persons suffering from mental illness. The National Sheriffs’ Association estimated that half of those shot and killed by the police had mental health problems. Other countries such as Australia, where “42 [of] the deceased had been identified as having some form of mental illness,” according to the Australia Institute of Criminology, have begun to implement such training. In the United States, the Albuquerque police department has done the same and today, according to The New York Times, about 25 percent of its force has been properly trained. The rest of the country should follow their lead.
In conclusion, consider the tragic death of Tamir Rice last year in Cleveland. A man had called 911 and said, “There is a guy with a pistol. It’s probably fake, but he’s pointing it at everybody.” Upon arriving at the scene, Officer Timothy Loehmann immediately shot Rice twice, claiming — as video footage appears to collaborate — that he reached towards the gun in his waistband. That gun was later found to be an Airsoft replica, though it had been altered to appear like a real firearm. The typical headline read, “White cop kills black, 12-year-old boy playing with toy,” but this oversimplifies and obscures the other relevant matters at play.
After just six months on the force in Independence, Ohio, Loehmann “resigned” when deemed emotionally unstable and unfit for duty. In a letter suggesting his dismissal, the department’s Deputy Chief, Jim Polak, wrote, “[Loehmann] could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections, and his handgun performance was dismal.” According to his personnel file, he fell asleep during training and was unable “to emotionally function because of a personal situation at home with an on and off again girlfriend, [leading] one to believe that he would not be able to substantially cope, or make good decisions, during or resulting from any other stressful situation.”
Before being hired by the Cleveland police, he had been denied by as many as seven other police departments, including those of Akron, Euclid and Parma Heights. When applying to the Cuyahoga County sheriff’s department in 2013, he failed the cognitive exam, scoring just 46 percent. The Cleveland police have since admitted that they did not even look over his personnel file before hiring him.
I wonder if his police union was involved in his re-hiring. I wonder if he was able to pass the Cleveland police department’s exams because of its affirmative action policies. (Even the department’s deputy application says in big letters, “The city of Cleveland is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer.”) So, as in the case of Tamir Rice, there is little to no cause to believe that the police’s use of deadly force is racially motivated, yet there is overwhelming evidence that policing in America is rife with costly — sometimes even deadly — structural problems that we should address as soon as possible.