by Benjamin Tschirhart
There were more police killings last year than any year before. Also, we’ve never had it so good. Different sources are claiming both of these things. Obviously, they can’t both be true. Or can they? The only certain (and least satisfying) answer seems to be this: the truth depends largely on your frame of reference.
Best to start with known facts. One relevant fact might be that police in the U.S. killed at least 1,176 people in 2022 (some sources say 1,183). Is this number an all-time high and evidence of a deadly, corrupt, and unacceptable system? Or is it a regrettable but justifiable statistic which shows a downward trend and overall improvement? It seems to depend entirely on where the observer is standing. It’s not unlike describing the movement of two planetary bodies in the void of space. The picture changes fundamentally depending on where you stand, and how wide a frame of reference you are able or willing to adopt. Participants in this conversation can fairly be divided into two groups based on whether they believe police killings are basically justified or not. Some pundits have been known to use the particularly tone-deaf term “righteous kills,” though most people on this side of the debate tend to be slightly less offensive.
Vice.com tells the story from that first point of view, stating “police killed a record number of people last year” and citing Samuel Sinyangwes’ meticulous data tracking project “Mapping Police Violence,” which has been tracking annual police involved-killings dating back to 2013. It mentions the fact that 24% of these killings began with a traffic stop, mental health and welfare check, or non-violent offense. It notes that less than 2% of those police face charges and that less than 0.3% were convicted. The story ends by saying that “while 2022 was a record year, data shows that police violence has been on the rise nationally since 2019…” and that last year’s 1,140 deaths were “just five deaths short of the previous record high set in 2018.”
A more nuanced perspective, which doesn’t agree with the “record high” claims, but also doesn’t quite align with the “righteous kill” crowd, is the one taken by the column in reason.com, which puts this data in the wider context of historical police fatality trends. It acknowledges that while the raw numbers might be unpleasant, they still represent a long-term reduction in police killings from past decades.
Consider – from 1970 to 1974, police in New York City killed an average of 62 people a year out of a population of 7.5 million people. Compare that to the average of nine people killed a year out of a population of 8.7 million from 2015 to 2021. These per capita reductions are consistent across major cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia. When the frame of reference is expanded, it is clear that police killings have been reduced over the past 50 years, local spikes in the data notwithstanding.
The cause of police accountability – encompassing the fight against qualified immunity and advocacy for increased transparency – can be embraced without misrepresenting the comparative historical data sets. A good cause does not require dishonest representation. Murderous police can and should be exposed, resisted, and replaced. Police murders should be stopped. If we wish to be on the right side of history, we cannot accomplish our aims by using lies or cynical distortions of data.
The truth must be enough. Last year saw only 12 days without a police-involved killing. This fact can stand alone.
Sources: reason.com; techdirt.com; vice.com
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