Debunking Myths About Racialized Police Brutality in America

Today, people are far too quick to allege racism, and even quicker to mistake disparate impact for it. From graffiti in Ferguson saying, “The only good cop is a dead cop” to unsanctioned protests in New York City where protesters chanted, “What do we want? Dead cops!” the police have been the most recent to fall victim to such allegations. But what evidence is there to suggest they are racist?  Even in times of anguish, it is important to use sound reasoning; below you will find the first of a series of articles in which I will attempt to inject such reason into common talking points that have emerged on the issue.

In recent months, “every 28 hours” has become a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement and other related campaigns. But what exactly do these groups claim to happen every 28 hours?

While many people claim that every 28 hours a cop kills a black person, others, such as Columbia University professor and news pundit Marc Lamont Hill, have claimed that the police shoot an unarmed black person every 28 hours. But, like the “Hands up, don’t shoot” mantra, evidence and reason have debunked these “28 hours” myths. Politifact rated them “false” while the Washington Post awarded them their lowest grade possible: “four Pinocchios,” which it uses to identify a “whopper” of a lie. Marc Lamont Hill has even taken to Twitter to apologize, claiming he “misspoke.”

This claim and its variants originated from a report called “Operation Ghetto Storm” by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, which profiled the “extrajudicial killing of at least 313 black people in 2012, or one every 28 hours.” Yet Operation Ghetto Storm is not an accurate representation of the facts, much less an unbiased, academic study. It seems to have been compiled by a single volunteer researcher and was largely derived from news clips, which can be remarkably misleading — just consider CNN’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. Furthermore, while the report itself has many discrepancies, the slogans above only distort it more.

Firstly, in its definition of “extrajudicial killings,” Operation Ghetto Storm includes people killed by police officers as well as by security guards and vigilantes who claimed self-defense. The “28 hours” slogan fails to mention either security guards or vigilantes. Thus, when the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement claims on its website that “in 2012, police summarily executed more than 313 black people — one every 28 hours,” it is deceiving the public and undermining its own cause.

Secondly, many of the report’s victims were killed as a result of accidents. One such victim was Adaisha Miller, who was killed at a birthday party when she hugged an off-duty police officer from behind and inadvertently triggered his firearm. Several more were killed in automobile accidents, such as Stephanie Melson, a teacher and mother of three, who was run over by a car driven by a suspect fleeing arrest. Moreover, the report includes the death of Monae Turnage, who was accidentally shot by two of her friends, on the grounds that she was shot using an off-duty officer’s stolen firearm. These hardly fit the “killer cop” narrative, yet the report holds the police just as responsible.

Thirdly, it seems that less than half of the report’s victims were unarmed, yet the 28-hour calculation factors in all 313 deaths — a fact that prompted Marc Lamont Hill to apologize for the statements he made on national television. But that fact alone does not suffice to show the inaccuracy of Hill’s claim. The report’s definition of “unarmed” is also ambiguous: Of the 136 victims it classified as “unarmed,” nine were killed while allegedly attempting to run over an officer with a car. Cars kill more people than guns do each year, so can these cases really be considered unarmed? Other victims, such as Stephon Watts and Milton Hall, were armed with knives, yet the report classified both of them as “unarmed.” Another, Rudy Eugene — the “Miami Zombie” — “was shot to death by Miami police as he crouched over Ronald Poppo’s limp body, naked and growling, chewing off chunks of the man’s face.” The term “unarmed” is often used to imply that the police used excessive force, but these cases make it clear that one can still present a threat without a firearm.

Therefore, it is lying to claim that the police killed a black person every 28 hours, and much more so to say that the police shot an unarmed black man every 28 hours. The Operation Ghetto Storm report was not a study, but rather a contrived narrative, tailored to fit a predetermined conclusion. A true academic study would not have included such misleading cases, which served only to distort the truth and support a disingenuous narrative about the police. While, anecdotally, black males appear more often to be killed by police than their white counterparts, hyperbole and sensationalism certainly do not constitute proof.