Death by Police in America

Sky Valley Chronicle, December 7, 2014

(MONROE, WA.) — Five days ago Op-Ed writer Eugene Robinson wrote a piece for the Washington Post called, “What America’s police departments don’t want you to know.”

In that piece he provided information that many Americans may never have been exposed to — data relating to police shootings of civilians across the country.

Robinson came to the conclusion the death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri at the hands of a white police officer was not an isolated incident.

It was part of what Robinson called, “A tragic and unacceptable pattern: Police officers in the United States shoot and kill civilians in shockingly high numbers.”

How many civilians are shot to death every year by police? Nobody really knows, says Robinson because “police departments don’t want us to know.”

The problem is simple: many law enforcement agencies do not report to the FBI database on police shootings and the FBI database is where the numbers are.

Journalists have tried to compile “more complete data by collating local news reports” and that has resulted in estimates as high as 1,000 police killings a year.

But there is no way to know for sure how many victims, like Brown, were unarmed.

In a world where companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook can obtain and retain millions of factual data streams about people who interact with those companies and build on those data streams daily, when spy agencies like the NSA can find and record for posterity trillions of phone calls made daily by Americans and others around the world and the IRS can compute down to the penny how much you owe on your taxes, in 2014 in America there are no firm numbers to be found on how many U.S. citizens are shot to death by police every year.

There is one man who decided to tackle that no-data problem. And what he found in terms of who gets shot and killed by police with alarming frequency in this country may or may not surprise you.

Robinson writes:

“Two years ago, D. Brian Burghart, the editor and publisher of the Reno (Nev.) News & Review, launched, an ambitious attempt to compile a comprehensive crowd-sourced database of fatal police shootings.

Reports of the October 2012 killing of a naked, unarmed college student by University of South Alabama police made Burghart wonder how many such shootings there were; the fact that no one knew the answer made him determined to find it.

Burghart recently summed up what he has learned so far: “You know who dies in the most population-dense areas? Black men,” he wrote on Gawker. “You know who dies in the least population-dense areas? Mentally ill men. It’s not to say there aren’t dangerous and desperate criminals killed across the line. But African-Americans and the mentally ill people make up a huge percentage of people killed by police.”

Thus if one takes at face value that all those American police shootings of black men and the mentally ill were justified as police often maintain, it stands to reason there must be many similar justified shooting deaths by police in other countries when adjusted for population differences.

And therein lies the second December surprise. According to Robinson, “There were no fatal police shootings in Great Britain last year. Not one. In Germany, there have been eight police killings over the past two years. In Canada — a country with its own frontier ethos and no great aversion to firearms — police shootings average about a dozen a year.”

Robinson maintains that liberals and conservatives alike in this country should be outraged at the frequency with which police in America use deadly force.

Anyway you cut this pie he says, something is wrong because it is difficult to escape the conclusion that police in America are much too quick to shoot people, particularly black males and the mentally ill.

Robinson’s piece can be found here .

Below is a video published to YouTube last June that attempts to examine some of the problematic issues behind the large numbers of police shootings of civilians in America. Warning: graphic content and language.

As of this writing the video has been viewed over 1.1 million times.


It is interesting to note that although Congress instructed the U.S. Attorney General back in 1994 (twenty years ago) to compile and publish annual statistics on police use of excessive force, this was never carried out and the FBI does not collect these data either.

In a world where corporations are granted just about every tax break or other taxpayer subsidy they ask for and it rarely if ever takes 20 years to happen, readers will have to figure out for themselves why in 20 years that task by the Attorney General has not been accomplished.

Why might such annual statistics be important to citizens? Perhaps the case of Otto Zhem might illustrate.

According to Wikipedia, on May 20, 2006 Otto Zehm, a man with a developmental disability (he was a 36-year old schizophrenic) was beaten to death by Spokane police officers after he was falsely reported to be stealing from an ATM. Zehm had not committed a crime.

From Wikipedia:

“He was hit multiple times from behind by a baton, Tasered, hog-tied and left on his stomach (officers also sat on him as he was hogtied). He was transported to a hospital, where he was pronounced brain-dead and died two days later.

None of the officers were disciplined for Zehm’s death. In July 2009, Karl F. Thompson, Jr., the first officer on the scene, was charged with excessive force and falsifying a report. On November 2, 2011, the officer was found guilty on the two counts: excessive force and lying to investigators about the confrontation that led to Zehm’s death.”

Was Thompson a rookie, a man who did not know what he was doing? No, at the time Thompson had more than 40 years of law enforcement experience under his belt which might lead some to speculate what else he had been doing to people, and HAD gotten away with, in those four decades.

Thompson hadn’t even been charged with killing Zehm. He was simply charged with, and found guilty of violating Zehm’s civil rights by using excessive force.

The conviction came as little comfort to Zhem who by that time had been dead and in the ground for five years.

More on the Zehm case can be found here

There are many such cases as Zehm’s around the country. Take for example the case of Abner Louima in August 1997.

Louima is a Haitian born man who was was sodomized with a broken broomstick handle by NYPD Officer Justin Volpe while detained in a New York City police station after he had been arrested outside a nightclub.

Louima was left bleeding from the rectum in a booking cell. Despite an initial cover-up by various members of the NYPD, Volpe was convicted of assault and sentenced to 30 years. Two officers were convicted of the cover-up while one was acquitted.

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