The police shooting earlier this month of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has brought to light a problem that is becoming systemic in this country: the police shooting unarmed citizens. As much as we would like to hope that Mike Brown’s death was an isolated incident, it’s not: in just the past week, a 20-year-old- unarmed man was shot while wearing headphones in Salt Lake City (RawStory), an unarmed mentally-ill man was shot in Los Angeles (L.A. Times), two unarmed men were shot in New Orleans (City Lab), and an unarmed man was shot in Dallas (Dallas Morning News). And those stories are only scratching the surface.
At first blush, the common thread running through these stories appears to be race and for good reason; as Mother Jones reports, blacks are far more likely to be killed by police than all other races combined. But whether the victim is black, white, Hispanic or Asian does not explain why so many unarmed citizens are being shot and killed by police. This isn’t a just a racial problem; this is a human problem, and the Justice Department needs to take action on a nationwide basis.
The Drug Bugaboo
In their zeal to enforce antiquated and draconian drug laws, police departments have taken an “Us vs. Them” approach to the notion of people buying, selling, and using substances that harm only themselves. Consider, for example, this billboard, which “welcomes” visitors to the central Illinois city of Bloomington:
The message of this billboard is clear: “If you have drugs, we will shoot you.” And it’s not just Bloomington; police departments across the country are arming themselves to the teeth with military-grade weapons and armor to combat the unacceptable notion that someone, somewhere, might be harming their self. And as long as the U.S. looks at drug users as “deadly menaces deserving of death” instead of “sick people in need of treatment,” these police shootings will continue.
Lack of Transparency
If every phase of a police interaction were to be recorded by a video camera, then there would be an objective, third-party record of exactly what happened. Any claim of police brutality could be decided in court by a review of the evidence. This is exactly what happened in Rialto, California; according to the Wall Street Journal, after Rialto police started wearing body cameras, claims of police brutality in Rialto went down by 80%.
And guess what the police in Ferguson don’t have; body cameras or even dash cameras, for that matter. If Ferguson had such things, not only would we know by now exactly what happened, but the officer who shot Mike Brown might have been less likely to shoot him, knowing that there would have been an unassailable record of what he did, one that won’t rely on his own word against those of witnesses.
Or maybe not…
Lack of Accountability
Even so, rarely do police who shoot unarmed citizens face accountability for their actions. Oftentimes a local police department will placate the public by placing an officer involved in a shooting on “administrative leave” – code for “paid vacation” – while at the same time doing nothing to hold the officer accountable.
And even if a police shooting case goes to trial, victims shouldn’t expect relief from the courts. As Mother Jones notes, juries are unlikely to convict police officers who kill and some states have laws that indemnify police for actions taken in the line of duty.
What The Justice Department Can Do
On Sunday, the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder announced that an autopsy on Michael Brown would be performed by federal investigators. That the DoJ is stepping into the Ferguson situation is good news but is only a starting point.
To fully address the problem of police shooting unarmed citizens, the Justice Department needs to stop treating such things as a local matter, and look at the big picture in the nation as a whole. What practical effect this could have is probably negligible, since the Justice Department has little actual say in the day-to-day operations of local police departments. But what it can do is send a message, loudly and clearly, to local police forces throughout the country: “We are watching you, and you will be held accountable for your actions.”
Unless, and until, the Justice Department acts, expect to see more Mike Browns and more Ferguson, Missouris.