[Mercury] EDITOR’S NOTE: The following essay is a guest editorial co-written by two volunteers from the Mental Health Association of Portland—a respected local voice on mental health policy and police accountability—regarding their work on an important national project that strives to better track people who’ve been killed in police shootings here and elsewhere else in America.
Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, attention has been riveted on the issue of police brutality.
Pundits were shocked to discover no national oversight of local police departments—and no national database of persons killed by law enforcement officers.
On August 15, an article in USA Today cited FBI estimates of 400 police-involved deaths a year. But, it went on to note, those estimates were based on a small fraction of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide—those that chose to report “justifiable” police homicides.
Frankly, we’re more interested in police homicides that are not justifiable. Who keeps that list?
For more than a dozen years, Wikipedia has crowd-sourced a list of deaths caused by US law enforcement officers. Last month, we collaborated with 44 “Wikipedians”—the highly involved, active volunteers at the heart of Wikipedia—to source, distill, and verify a comprehensive-as-possible list of people killed by US law enforcement officers in August 2014, and add to the existing list for prior months and years. Names were culled from thousands of mainstream media articles. Each case was confirmed in at least one media source, often the paper of record for its community.
The total for August alone? One hundred and four deaths.
You can review the list on Wikipedia as “List of killings by law enforcement officers in the United States, August 2014.”
Of course, 104 a month, over 12 months, would come to 1,248 deaths—an annual count significantly higher than the FBI’s estimate of 400. Even if August’s count happened to be unusually high—say, twice the actual average monthly number—the real annual count would still be higher than the FBI’s.
The majority of those killed this August were, from all appearances, flat-out crooks—often armed, often shooting, often extremely dangerous—in situations where even hard-line pacifists and Buddhist monks would be tempted to grab a weapon and aim where it counts.
But a closer reading of the list will make an honest American cry.
Innocent bystanders died—three of them. Four officers committed suicide. Twelve people, like Michael Brown, were younger than 21—just starting out in life.
Many—it’s impossible to say how many, but it’s quite clear it was too many—were affected by mental illness, alcohol, or drugs. Law enforcement officers killed people with mental illness in Arizona, Michigan, Colorado, Maryland, Alabama, New Jersey, Kansas, Missouri, California, and our state of Oregon.
There were men killed while raging against their own families—wives, girlfriends, mothers, daughters, granddaughters. Often these men were drunk, and their final stupid act was pointing a gun at officers.
But there were others—with tragedy stretching beyond spilled blood and shattered families, to media indifference, a blue wall of silence, and the crush of universal inattention.
• Joe Jennings, 18 and living in Kansas, wasn’t out of the psych ward three hours before being shot to death.
• John Crawford, a 22-year-old in suburban Dayton, Ohio, was playing with a BB gun in a Walmart when he was shot and killed.
• Diana Showman, 19, of San Jose, pointed a power drill at police, who shot and killed her. She had bipolar disorder.
• According to witnesses, Ezell Ford, 25, of Los Angeles, was lying on the sidewalk, arms outstretched, when officers shot him to death. He had a mental illness.
• Jeremy Lake, 19, of Tulsa, was killed by his girlfriend’s parents—both of whom were Tulsa police officers.
We know police often make important mistakes in their first report to the media. That’s understandable, considering the inevitable chaos surrounding any officer-involved death. But sadly, the media often don’t return to the first, unverified, and mistake-prone stories to put things right. There have been instances, for example, of early reports saying, “He was armed.” Later it develops there was never a weapon. This detail goes unreported, but is repeated by members of the public as justifying police actions.
The list has pathos, but also patterns.
More often than not, the shooter was a surprised sheriff’s deputy in a rural area, without the organized training or immediate backup that may be available to urban counterparts.
Locating any racial patterns proves more difficult. To make a fair determination, we searched for photographs or media descriptions of race for each person. But photographs are an unreliable source for race—and we’re urging better-resourced researchers to take on the task and improve our results. We excluded people whose race we could not determine (18), bystanders killed (3), murders (4), and suicides (4), leaving 75 on-duty intentional deaths.
Of these 75, 29 were white, 24 black, 20 Hispanic, and two Asian. Which means 61 percent of people killed by law enforcement officers this August were of color. The overrepresentation of non-whites on the list had no simple cause, outside of the cloudy, multi-platform failure we call “the US criminal justice system.”
Our list could be larger. We did not include deaths from chases or where people suicided when confronted by officers. No deaths from acute detox on the jail floor are listed, nor are state executions. We were not able to track people critically injured by shootings who later died; their stories were not reported. Adding those deaths could increase the list by 30 or 40 people.
Some of the dead—such as Kajieme Powell and Michelle Cusseaux, both people with mental illness—received significant press coverage. But usually local media reworked the police press release and moved on. Lazy, rushed, or indifferent—it’s hard to tell.
In no instance during this single month —as far as we could tell—were charges filed in any on-duty killing; all deaths were deemed justifiable prior to investigation. No mayor apologized to grieving parents, spouses, or children. For a few deaths, people marched in the streets. For others, not even a name was announced.
For all its deficits, we believe our survey offers the best answer so far to the question, “Who’s getting killed by cops?”
And our results demand certain actions:
- From local media, curiosity and follow-through. Reporters must avoid simple regurgitation of police talking points. They must publish the name of the person killed, the names of the officers involved. If this information is not available, they need to ask why.
- The US Department of Justice (DOJ) must survey all 17,000 law enforcement agencies, not just the handful that choose to report. We need full and accurate numbers, and gathering them should not be the province of the FBI; it is the DOJ that has an interest in civil rights and discrimination.
- From local activists we need a unified voice insisting on police accountability for their communities—especially the suburban and rural areas where many of these deaths happen. This voice should come from a joining together of organizations representing persons of color and those representing persons with mental illness. In this way alone will we bring appropriate thoughtfulness, via recruitment and evidence-based training, to police agencies everywhere.