We know these numbers because activists have searched tirelessly to find instances where the media has reported that someone was killed by police. Yes, newspaper articles are currently the most consistent source of information on nationwide police killings because police departments are not required to collect or report this information.
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We live in the age of big data and analytics, yet we have no systematic way of collecting even the most elemental data on the actions of police officers. It is as if the lives of those that are killed by the police simply do not matter. In fact, it appears as if these lives are not even worth cataloguing.
Although Ferguson, Mo., is a long way from Washington, D.C., those in the nation’s capital can do much to prevent what happened there and in cities across America.
From the 101st Airborne Division escorting the Little Rock 9 into a segregated school building, to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the creation of the School Breakfast Program, we have seen that, in this America, federal intervention has always been necessary to protect the rights of the marginalized.
It is ahistorical to suggest that the federal government cannot, or does not, have a role to play in ending police violence. There are several ways the federal government can help to end police violence.
First, elected and appointed officials must tell the truth about the current state of police violence in black communities. And this truth must be told publicly and repeatedly. The bully pulpit has always been powerful in that it focuses attention in a decidedly crowded landscape of messages. And, to date, elected and appointed officials have been silent about the truth – the police are killing us.
This is a time when laws protect killers at the expense of the killed: Mike Brown, Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Jones-Stanely, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Sean Bell. Elected and appointed officials must say aloud what we know to be true – the police are killing us and it must end. It is only by telling the truth that we will be able to confront it. It is in the power of telling the story that the story can be rewritten.
We understand that telling the truth is not always easy or convenient. Police unions are powerful lobbies. And the image of the police officer as the infallible American hero is potent. But I look forward to the elected and appointed officials who remember that our heroes are a reflection of our best selves and who will speak the truth knowing that the will of those armed with truth is stronger than those armed with the license to kill.
Second, the only mandates that matter are funded mandates. The federal government has substantial financial resources – from grants to program budgets to line-items – that can be leveraged to ensure compliance of local law enforcement agencies with the recommendations of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Through DOJ grant funding alone, pressure could be applied to local law enforcement that would lead to demonstrable impact.
The recent PRIDE Act, introduced by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), is an important first-step that could lead to the first mandated reporting of police violence in America. But even this legislation has a shocking provision tucked away in it that privileges police, creating a grant:
“…for public awareness campaigns designed to gain information from the public on use of force against police officers, including shootings, which may include tip lines, hotlines, and public service announcements…”
The PRIDE Act does not include any comparable language regarding the violence committed against civilians. Again, the police have killed up to 500 people this year alone. The text of the PRIDE Act is a reminder that the lives of marginalized people continue to be devalued, even in the wake of continued violence.
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The federal government could, today, withhold funds from law enforcement agencies that did not comply with its mandates and/or recommendations related to ending police violence. This would not be overreach – it would be the necessary intervention at the federal level to end an epidemic of police violence.
And finally, we must not be seduced by quick wins and easy fixes. Justice is both never experiencing the trauma as well as accountability for those that perpetuate and initiate the trauma. We do not yet know justice.
A host of changes will be required to end police violence and the racism that allows it to persist in our society. Body cameras, alone, are not the solution – we have watched on repeat footage of black bodies slain and the officers faced no consequence. We have seen “independent investigations” volley back-and-forth between government agencies as happened in Cleveland re: Tamir Rice most recently. Ending police violence will require deep structural and systemic solutions working in tandem with each other. Ending police violence will require a shift in hearts and minds, as well.
We must be able to criticize our institutions as we yearn for them to be better. I, too, once believed in Officer Friendly. I, too, grew up thinking that the police would be the people to call in the event of any true emergency – that they were entrusted with the power to potentially end life because of their deep commitment to protecting life.
The America I once knew simply does not exist. We must build an America that lives up to our ideals – our lives depend on it.
DeRay McKesson is an activist and organizer
The Outrage Machine is a weekly opinion column by voices from the left and right on Washington. Want to write for us? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org