Americans are notoriously bad at holding two thoughts in our heads at the same time.
We look at the police shooting of Alton Sterling and can’t decide whether it was racist or if the 37-year-old black man just had it coming.
But we’re missing the point. Sometimes twice.
Baton Rouge Police shot and killed the father of five on July 5th.
The 37-year-old man was killed outside a convenience store in Louisiana because police allegedly got a tip someone was selling CDs and was armed. In the resulting scuffle, Sterling was shot and killed.
If the whole thing weren’t caught on a cell phone video, it probably wouldn’t be more than a sad headline. Just another black dude killed by police.
But the resulting attention has made his name a hashtag and his death a source of outrage – for good reason.
On the video, police tackle Sterling to the ground before gunshots are heard.
One of the officers shouts “gun” before shooting, but store owner Abdullah Mulfahi told the media that Sterling’s hand was not near any weapon and the alleged gun later recovered from his pocket was not visible.
People watch the video (or not) and immediately take sides.
Who is to blame – the police or Sterling?
Was the black man armed? Maybe – though Louisiana is an open carry state so he would be within his rights to do so.
What should he have done when confronted by police? What actions of his might have resulted in police not shooting him dead?
Did he have a record? Is that even relevant since police had no access to that information at the time?
Typically people come to conclusions based on their convictions and not based on the evidence. If you think black people are being victimized by police, then you’re probably on Sterling’s side. If you think black people are naturally violent and police rarely do any wrong, you’re probably on the side of law enforcement.
But what both sides are ignoring is a sense of context.
This was the 15th American killed by police so far in July alone.
Not the 15th black person. The 15th person. Period.
There’s some dispute over exactly how many people have been killed by police so far this year, but the number is surprisingly high. You’d think that would be something the federal government would keep track of, but no. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program tabulates every criminal statistic imaginable – except homicide by law enforcement. Alarmingly, it leaves this to the private sector – almost as if it had something to hide.
Much of this is done by the news media, both in and out of the country. The Washington Post puts the number of Americans killed by police this year at 505 people. The Guardian puts it at 560. An open sourced database called Killed by Police puts the number at 580.
Any way you look at it, no matter which tally you go with, 2016 is turning out to be one of the deadliest years for police shootings since people have been counting.
It’s a problem for everyone. Police should not be killing such high numbers of civilians. In fact, in other countries, they don’t. Police kill more people in the U.S. in days than they do in other countries in years.
For instance, U.S. police killed 59 people in 24 days last year. In England and Wales, 55 people were killed by police in 24 YEARS!
And the numbers aren’t that high solely because the United States has a larger population. The entire nation of Canada has about as many people as the entire state of California, yet Canadian police killed 25 people last year to 72 by California law enforcement.
That may be due in part to a lack of accountability.
Despite such high body counts in this country, not a single police officer has served jail time for it in the last few years. Several officers went to trial in 2016, but none were convicted, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Last year had the highest number of officers being charged for shooting civilians in a decade. That number? 12. And none of them – not one – was convicted of murder or manslaughter.
We have a real problem here. American police kill far too many people.
However, this doesn’t mean that racism isn’t a motive in many of these police shootings. In fact, the numbers back that up.
Though more white people are killed by law enforcement in this country, it is black people who are killed at a disproportionately high rate. They only make up 13.2% of the population, yet they are twice as likely to be killed by police as whites. Nearly a quarter of all police homicides this year resulted in dead black folks.
What’s going on here?
First, we live in a police state. Officers often kill suspects with impunity and face little to no consequences. Not all police, certainly, but far too many.
Second, black folks are killed more regularly by police than whites. In fact, if all things were equal, you’d expect MORE white people to be killed than already are. Whites make up 77.7% of the population, yet they account for only half of the victims of police shootings.
This isn’t because black people are so much more violent than whites. According to the Center on Disease Control’s annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, they engage in violent behavior at similar rates to whites.
For instance, they carry a weapon (whites 17.9% to African Americans 15.2%) and carry guns (whites 5.5% to African Americans 6.5%) at about the same rates. However, blacks are twice as likely to be arrested for weapons possession.
The same holds for assaults. African Americans report being in physical fights at similar rates (36.5% versus 32.5% for whites) but are three times more likely to be arrested for aggravated assault.
It should come as no surprise then that black people are more likely to be killed by police. This holds with everything else we know. When it comes to the criminal justice system, black people are penalized more often and that includes being shot and killed by law enforcement.
Why? Because they’re black. Because of societal attitudes, fears, phobias and prejudices.
For many of us, when we see Sterling’s last moments enacted on that cell phone video, we’re confronted with that fact. We put ourselves in his position. What could he have done differently? Whether he was guilty of a crime or not, what action on his part would have assured that he got out of this situation alive?
Eric Garner was choked to death by police while repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe!” Tamir Rice was shot by police in two seconds. What exactly could a black person do to avoid being shot if law enforcement already perceives him or her to be a threat?
These are important questions. But they aren’t the only ones.
America has a problem with police violence. In fact, it has two problems. And we can’t solve one without solving the other.
We have to come to terms with this. It is not a case of racism or a police state. It is a case of BOTH.