The police murders of Stephon Clark in Sacramento on March 18th, along with numerous other People of Color, continues to reignite debates over police power. The focus of these debates has been on how could this happen? However, this conversation should also be expanded to why there is no accurate count of people killed by police? Stephon Clark’s murder provides another opportunity to address the absence of accurate, official data on police killings, and how the government’s unwillingness to track these killings perpetuates the racial historical legacy of police.
Today, rhetoric-filled pundits defend the nation’s orthodox understanding of the role of police. The President of the US also has advocated for police brutality, such as when he suggested in a speech that police officers did not need to be careful when putting suspects into patrol cars. The President’s remarks were supported by the primarily law enforcement audience who reacted with laughter and applause. Decisions by administration appointees also seem to support this trend, as the Department of Justice will no longer monitor and recommend reforms for troubled police departments. Instead, federal oversight of the 18,000 police departments nationwide has been reduced and all indicators point to the DOJ reversing the Obama-era policy of counting the number of people killed by police.
By refusing to track police-involved killings, the current DOJ chooses to ignore data that highlights the magnitude of the problem. Though data from the Center for Disease Control, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Vital Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) consistently report 400-500 justifiable homicides by police every year, these counts are far off from the actual number of deaths caused by police officers. In response to this lack of data, The Guardian’s ‘The Counted’ and the Washington Post’s ‘Police Shootings Database’ began tracking police-involved homicides in 2015. Moreover, advocacy groups such as ‘Fatal Encounters,’ ‘Killedbypolice.net,’ and ‘Mapping Police Violence’ furthered grass root attempts to keep an accurate count of these incidences. In all, these data sources indicate that the police kill over 1,000 people every year with some research arguing the total count is closer to 1,500.
Why has the federal government not tracked deaths at the hands of the police even though media outlets and advocacy groups continue to track these killings? To understand this, we must remember the historical legacy of policing involves slave patrols, armed militias, lynchings, and protest suppression that has disproportionately affected Communities of Color. The use of violence by police ties in directly with the government’s power to ensure continued control over the people, in addition to continuing centuries long cycles of oppressing Communities of Color. Therefore, we must consider the government’s interest in maintaining a database of killings by police. The presence of “official” data demonstrating that police kill over 1,000 people per year would bring calls for major reforms to policing practices and procedures. The lack of accountability for the police as an institution insinuates that the government believes the police are executing their goal and see no reason for police to change their behaviors.
With its roots in White Supremacy, basic police reforms will always serve to harm Communities of Color. So what does this indicate about the future directions of policing? We believe that the harms of policing are incurable and that we must think beyond the traditional parameters and definitions of policing. This calls for pursuing modes of transformative justice and citizen-based reductionist-styled reforms that allow for a decreasing reliance on police. Examples include the Neh-Kanikonriio Council in Canada, the Circles & Ciphers program in Chicago, the Harm Free Zone Project in Durham, Generation FIVE’s Transformative Justice Model, and the Los Angeles for Youth 1% Campaign. All of these examples are a reimagining of accountability and safety that police claim to bring, while placing the power to define their own ideals within the communities themselves. These methods are better mechanisms to facilitate healing for the victim, offender, and the overall community while eliminating the compounding presence of the socio-historical legacy of violence and White Supremacy deeply rooted in modern policing practices. Exploring and implementing such reforms would finally provide a social space in which these communities’ lives could be valued or “valorized” on a similar level as “Blue Lives”, while also providing a positive step towards true reform in dealing with the real number of police involved killings these communities continue to experience.
Brian A. Pitman
Old Dominion University
Stephen T. Young