This kind of incendiary rhetoric is not helpful. Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos lost their lives because of a deranged man. This act doesn’t say anything about the relationship between police and their communities. Nor does it reflect the majority of protesters, who are asking, nonviolently, for reform.
That said, protesters’ heated rhetoric about police brutality is harmful. Twisting facts and calling cops blood-thirsty murderers makes already difficult work harder. It creates an insular mentality on the part of the officers. And it makes police brutality seem like a much bigger problem than it is, obscuring the true issues that face minorities and the poor.
In reality, police use of force during arrests and detentions is very small. And lethal violence is even more rare. Using the data from Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2003 and 2009 the police made approximately 98 million arrests. During that same time, there were 2,931 arrest-related deaths by police. This data is incomplete and most likely an under-count. However, it provides an important benchmark, suggesting that homicides by police are extremely rare.
And an overwhelming majority of these police homicides are justifiable. America has a relatively higher homicide rate compared with other developed nations, and has many more guns per capita. As many as 49,851 officers were assaulted while on duty in 2013; 29.2 percent were injured and 27 were killed. Additionally, police are better trained, and departments have become significantly more professional in recent decades.
A much bigger problem is the violence and poverty that pervades many neighborhoods. America is one of the most violent and unequal societies in the industrialized world. There are an estimated 300 million firearms in circulation. And though the murder rate in United States has fallen greatly from 24,526 in 1993 to 14,827 in 2012, it is still higher than in almost all the industrialized nations.
Use of force by police will not disappear because of protests. What we need is to reduce the situations where police are called for in the first place. That means pushing for broad social changes to reduce income inequality, societal inequities, and high rates of violence.
Such changes require reform movements to focus on political change through Congress. Unfortunately, when barely half of the eligible voters participate in presidential elections and even fewer participate in local elections, it is difficult to see how meaningful reforms, necessary for reduction of violence by police, could be achieved. Just 36 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the 2014 midterms. Voter turnout in the United States is one of the lowest in any developed nation.
I’m not arguing that excessive force by police doesn’t exist. And I’m not suggesting that protesters stop asking for criminal justice reform. But if we want change, we need a comprehensive political movement that emphasizes civic participation and more effective anti-poverty measures.
There are reforms police should make. We need to emphasize transparency, training, and sensitivity. To that end, oversight for police misconduct should automatically be delegated to outside civic bodies, who can conduct a full investigation. We should also incorporate newer and more effective less-than-lethal weapons into the police toolbox. A combination of better training and access to nonlethal weapons can reduce the number of police shootings.
Officers have a unique and difficult job. Even when cops show perfect judgment, use of force is ugly. In the worst moments, when human lives are taken because officers must shoot, the ugliness is amplified and tragic. Let’s build neighborhoods where cops are needed less. Only then will we cut down on violence engendered during police-community interactions and allegations of police brutality.