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“Without A True Count, There’s Even Less Accountability”: How Many People Are Killed By Police? We’re Only Beginning To Find Out

Amazingly, although people are killed by police virtually every day in the United States, there is no government agency, no bureaucracy, and no database that counts them all. Nor is there any national prayer wall or shrine where images of the dead and their stories are collected in an effort to portray them as individuals.

Last week, almost simultaneously, The Washington Post and The Guardian US unveiled large-scale journalistic projects that tried to supply a comprehensive, independent accounting of citizens killed by police since the beginning of this year. Same story, similar journalistic standards. So far, The Guardian story, with its interactive database linking to photos and stories of the dead, has come closest to filling the shameful gap.

In what Lee Glendinning, the new editor of The Guardian US, called “the most comprehensive public accounting of deadly force in the US,” the site launched “The Counted,” an interactive database of those killed by police since January 1 that includes the names, locations, background, race, means of death—along with, when possible, photos and stories of the dead.

Combining traditional reporting and “verified crowd sourcing,” Glendinning said the idea was to “build on the work on databases already out there,” most of which, she said, “are largely numbers and statistics. We wanted to build on these by telling the stories of these people’s lives, over a whole year, every day, and update them every day.”

Most Americans probably assume that some agency keeps track of the people who have been killed by police, but no such authoritative clearinghouse exists. There are partial counts by various bureaucracies, as well as by organizations like KilledByPolice.net and FatalEncounters.org, but none are complete.

“You could tell me how many people, the absolute number, bought a book on Amazon,” FBI director James Comey himself complained in a speech last month. “It’s ridiculous, I can’t tell you how many people were shot by police in this country last week, last year, the last decade.”

Some of the difficulties in keeping count are due to the reluctance of local police departments to file reports when they kill someone. But, as Tom McCarthy wrote at The Guardian, “The structural and technical challenges to compiling uniform data from the 18,000-plus local law enforcement agencies in the US far exceeds the reporting problem, in some cases.”

Without a true count, there is even less accountability. “A counting is a prerequisite,” Glendinning said, for any kind of “informed public debate about the severity of the problem.”

The Guardian didn’t attempt to determine whether the deaths were justified or unjustified. But they did find some disturbing trends and alarming sloppiness:

  • In the first five months of 2015, 464 people were killed by law enforcement—that’s twice as many as calculated by the US government’s official public records. (The FBI “counted 461 ‘justifiable homicides’ by law enforcement in all of 2013, the latest year for which official data is available.”)
  • Of those 464 killed, 102 people were unarmed.
  • Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people: “32% of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, as were 25% of Hispanic and Latino people, compared with 15% of white people killed.”
  • Fourteen of the fatalities occurred while the victim was in custody, including the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
  • The analysis revealed five people killed by police whose names have not been publicly released before.

A day before the Guardian story broke, The Washington Post came out with similar trends and numbers based on its own in-depth investigation of police-caused fatalities. (“We knew they were working on something, and they knew we were,” Glendinning said, but she believes the timing is coincidence.) One big difference between the two projects is that the Post limits its data to death by police shootings, which, it found, have amounted to 385 so far this year. The Guardian’s 464 police-caused deaths in the same period, however, also include those by Taser (27), vehicle, and other means. Hence, Eric Garner’s death while the NYPD held him in a chokehold wouldn’t be included in the Post tally. (Mother Jones compares some of the two publications’ findings here.)

It was probably the one-two punch of the Post and Guardian investigations that led to an uncharacteristically quick political response. Within 48 hours after the pieces appeared, senators Cory Booker and Barbara Boxer proposed a plan to “force all American law enforcement agencies to report killings by their officers” to the Department of Justice.

Another difference between the two projects is that, while both will collect data through the end of the year, the Post’s database—and any photos, stories and interactive bells and whistles that might accompany it—won’t go public, it said, until “a future date.”

And so in terms of emotional impact, The Guardian has the jump. In fact, “The Counted” reminds me of the Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times project, “Portraits of Grief,” which ran more than 1,800 capsule biographies, with photos when possible, of those killed on 9/11. “Portraits” was a daily feature, filling one full page, sometimes two, and ran through New Year’s Eve 2001. Like today’s police killings projects, “Portraits” began, the Times wrote, “as an imperfect answer to a journalistic problem, the absence of a definitive list of the dead…”

The portraits, now archived online, were based on a phalanx of reporters’ interviews with families and friends of the dead, and gave more personal snapshots (like “Taking Care of Mozard: Maria Isabel Ramirez”) than either the Post or Guardian have the resources to muster today.

The Guardian stories are presented almost Facebook-style in a photo mosaic of faces. You could find yourself, as I did, clicking on faces to see whether they fit or explode the stereotypes you might have of someone who would be killed by the cops, all the time overwhelmed at the scale of the problem.

Beyond the database, The Guardian is running almost-daily features on how police violence affects various communities, including deaths of the mentally ill, women, Latinos, and the elderly (“about six elderly people a month,” it finds).

By the way, that figure of 464 people killed by police in the first five months of 2015 has climbed, as of today, to 489.

 

By: Leslie Savan, The Nation, June 8, 2015

June 14, 2015 Posted by | Law Enforcement, Police Shootings, Police Violence | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“What It Means To ‘Love America'”: To Believe We Should Evolve And Change Toward Becoming A More Diverse And Just Society

On May 30, 2013, Kalief Browder was finally released after more than three years in Rikers Island. His crime? There wasn’t one. He was accused of stealing a backpack and the backlog in the courts meant that Browder, who refused to plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit, stayed behind bars until the prosecutor finally dropped the case. He attempted suicide while in prison.

Meanwhile, it was announced today that Maureen McDonnell, wife of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, has been sentenced to one year and a day. The former governor received just a two year sentence. That means that after being convicted in federal court on fourteen counts of corruption, both McDonnells will likely serve less time in jail than a black teenager who was never convicted and never even went to trial.

This is what FBI Director James Comey meant in his speech last week, titled “Hard Truths About Law Enforcement and Race” when he said, “there is a disconnect between police agencies and many citizens – predominantly in communities of color.” Comey went on to say that bridging that divide is a two-way street that requires law enforcement and communities of color seeing each other more fairly and equally.

But as Jonathan Capehart has pointed out, unlike when President Barack Obama or Attorney General Eric Holder discusses race, the right and its organs like Fox News paid Comey no attention. Because when a white male Republican law enforcement official points out the racial imbalance in America’s justice system, the right wing noise machine suddenly goes silent.

And that goes to the heart of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s ghoulish, repulsive, race-baiting assertion that President Obama doesn’t “love America.” The fact is that Giuliani’s view of America and its history privileges the powerful, so any acknowledgment of the Kalief Browders of the world must be a sign that someone doesn’t “love America.” This has also been manifested in the growing national fight over AP History classes, which conservatives now complain are insufficiently patriotic. Last fall, thousands of students fought back against the right wing ideologues on the Jefferson County School Board here in Colorado a valuable lesson in civil disobedience; and more recently an proposal by Republicans in the Oklahoma state legislature to defund AP history classes gained national attention.

Maybe some of us love our country enough to believe its judicial system should hold the powerful as much to account as the powerless. Maybe some of us love our country enough to believe access to health care shouldn’t depend on your income, that a poor kid with asthma deserves a doctor as much as a rich one. Maybe some of us love our country enough to believe that sacrificing our soldiers to war shouldn’t be done out of dishonesty or caprice.

Maybe some us love our country enough to believe that Dr. Marting King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a profoundly patriotic document. Maybe some of us love our country enough to believe that we should embrace and correct its flaws, not turn a cruel and blind eye to them. Maybe some of us love our country enough to believe it should evolve and change toward becoming a more diverse and just society, not remain calcified by class.

And maybe some of us love our country enough to believe that it is the Rudy Giulianis of the world, and his cowardly enablers like Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker, who betray what we stand for and who we aspire to be as a nation.

 

By: Laura K. Chapin, U. S. News and World Report, February 20, 2015

February 22, 2015 Posted by | American History, Criminal Justice System, Rudy Giuliani | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“From The Fringe To The Hill”: For Conservatives, Strange Ideas Effortlessly Seep Into The Mainstream

It’s alarmingly common to hear congressional Republicans repeat some deeply odd conspiracy theories. But more often than not, the theories didn’t start on Capitol Hill; they just ended up there.

This keeps happening.

Four Republican senators have sent FBI Director James Comey a letter regarding conservative author and political commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who was indicted for campaign finance fraud last month.

In the letter, Sens. Charles Grassley, Jeff Sessions, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee quote Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz as saying, “I can’t help but think that [D’Souza’s] politics have something to do with it…. It smacks of selective prosecution.”

“To dispel this sort of public perception that Mr. D’Souza may have been targeted because of his outspoken criticisms of the President, it is important for the FBI to be transparent regarding the precise origin of this investigation,” the senators write.

Last April, I laid out the flight plan, showing the trajectory of these theories: they start with the off-the-wall fringe, then get picked up by more prominent far-right outlets, then Fox News, then congressional Republicans.

Now note the Dinesh D’Souza conspiracy theory. It started with Alex Jones and Drudge. It was then picked up by Limbaugh. And then Fox News. And now four members of the U.S. Senate.

It is one of the more striking differences between how the left and right deal with wild political accusations: for conservatives, strange ideas effortlessly seep into the mainstream.

In this case, D’Souza, a fairly obscure anti-Obama provocateur, was charged with violating federal campaign finance laws, allegedly using straw donors to make illegal third-party donations to a Senate candidate in 2012. D’Souza has denied any wrongdoing.

Looking at this in the larger context, let’s make a few things clear. First, there’s no evidence to suggest politics had anything to do with the charges against D’Souza. Second, if the Justice Department were going to politicize federal law enforcement, risk a national scandal, invite abuse-of-power allegations, and use federal prosecutors to punish conservative activists, it’d probably go after a bigger fish than Dinesh D’Souza.

Third, when the Bush/Cheney administration actually politicized federal law enforcement during the extraordinary U.S. Attorney purge scandal, and there was overwhelming evidence of a genuine scandal, Senate Republicans couldn’t have cared less. Now that an obscure right-wing activist is accused of campaign-finance violations, they’re interested?

And finally, there’s just the unsettling pattern in which Alex Jones and Drudge come up with some silly idea, and within a few weeks, congressional Republicans – including the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, for goodness sakes – are demanding answers from the Justice Department.

As we talked about last year, this just doesn’t happen on the left. This is not to say there aren’t wacky left-wing conspiracy theorists – there are, and some of them send me strange emails – but we just don’t see Democratic members of Congress embracing ideas from the far-left fringe.

On the right, however, no one seems especially surprised when a story gradually works its way from Alex Jones’ show to Chuck Grassley’s desk.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, February 21, 2014

February 24, 2014 Posted by | Conservatives, Conspiracy Theories | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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