Lives In The Balance
We’ve all heard it before, haven’t we? “Police officers take their lives in their hands every day; Unless you are a cop you can’t know or understand how dangerous it is out there; Every day a police officer puts his life on the line.” These, and/or variations on them, are standard mantra for any discussion about police and violence. Rather than consider a qualitative argument – the refusal of many police officers to offer constructive self-criticism; the quickness of police and their defenders to demand from critics silence unless speaking from experience; these and other tactics are used precisely to end discussions and silence criticism rather than bring about healthy and long-needed discussions about the role of police in enforcing state-sanctioned violence against particular groups – I thought, “Are there statistics out there?”
I was happy to find that, indeed, there are. According the the US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the Office of Justice programs, between 2003 and 2009, there were 4,813 deaths of persons either during arrests or in custody. That averages to not quite 688 deaths per year during the reporting period. During those same seven years, according to rough estimates on Wikipedia (statistics from the same time period weren’t available from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which tracks the deaths of police officers while on duty; the Wikipedia article notes the numbers offered are incomplete), 1,148 officers were killed in the line of duty, an average of 164 per year. I should note that the BJS numbers do NOT include federal law enforcement numbers (which would include Federal Marshals and BIA Officers on Native American reservations; accidental deaths of those otherwise not involved in the arrest such as witnesses or family members of suspects; those who had been previously wanted by the police, then were killed either while in flight or during attempted arrest or recapture). The Wikipedia numbers, which are footnoted to NLEOMF, includes all officers in all US jurisdictions, including Territories, Commonwealths, Native American Reservations, as well as all levels of law enforcement from local municipalities through state police to federal law enforcement.
The numbers show a glaring disproportion. For every police officer killed, four defendants are killed. A police officer was killed about every other day each year during this reporting period, while each day just about two defendants were killed either being arrested or while in custody. Neither of these numbers are acceptable. Any death is a tragedy, whether it’s a police officer in the line of duty or a criminal defendant. Each and all are human beings deserving of sympathy. More, these numbers demonstrate yet again our country’s high tolerance for officially sanctioned violence. During the years in question, 852 people died either doing their jobs, or as a result of the police doing their job. By any stretch of any moral understanding, this should be unacceptable. Yet, I had to dig just to find these numbers, which would indicate most folks aren’t even aware of them, or care that much that we permit this kind of officially sanctioned blood-shed, a kind of low-level warfare between police and criminal suspects, is a daily occurrence.
Of course, in communities most effected by police actions, whether the police themselves and their families, or communities disproportionately impacted by police violence, these numbers probably aren’t that surprising. The issue, I think, isn’t who or who does not risk their lives. The issue is, rather, why do we Americans tolerate it? Do we shrug our shoulders, saying nothing can be done, and allow people to kill and be killed, chalking it up to various social pathologies? Do we allow the police to kill with impunity because that is easier than taking responsibility for the body count on both sides of this unseen, largely urban, warfare? At what point, prior to a series of national news events involving the deaths of young African-American males in police custody that spark protests, do we demand accountability not just from police or local communities or municipal and state officials, and say, “I’m the one responsible”?
ill Because this isn’t about bashing police. Nor is it about insisting that those who die in police custody had it coming one way or another. This isn’t about sides, because all the folks in these numbers are our fellow Americans. They’re our neighbors, the folks in our church pews, our Synagogues and Mosques. They are the guys who do our yard work, the high school student who has a dream of going on to be a pro sports star, or perhaps a doctor, a lawyer, or some other community service worker. Everyone, which means each one of us, has to stop blaming others, stop pointing fingers, stop fear-mongering, and stand up and take responsibility and demand accountability for all. Until that happens, until enough of us say, “I’m the one not contributing to a solution,” the body count will continue to rise and people will continue to choose up sides like kids in a pick-up baseball game.