In “The risk of death is lower than you probably imagine” (June 13), Lisa Tibbitts claims that, because the risk of death at the hands of a police officer is relatively low, “the issue of law enforcement targeting minorities can be put to rest … .”
Statistics are useful, but they are only one aspect of any policy discussion. If we broaden the lens and apply the same logic to other statistics, we could also conclude that the issue of terrorist attacks in the U.S. can be “put to rest” — because the risk of being killed by a foreign-born terrorist is only 1 in 45,808 — significantly lower than the risk of being killed by a police officer.
We could also “put to rest” the risk police officers face of being killed while making an arrest. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 137 officers were killed in the line of duty in 2015 and 143 officers were killed in the line of duty in 2016. With more than 8 million arrests in 2015, the odds work out to something like 1 in 60,024.
Of course, most people would reject both of those propositions, as they should equally reject Tibbitts’ suggestion that we simply change our perception of police killings.
Here are more statistics that Tibbitts conveniently ignores. In its analysis of police killings, the Washington Post concluded that “black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers” and that “black men were seven times more likely than white men to die by police gunfire while unarmed.”
More important, police killings don’t happen in a vacuum. A single statistic will never give you the whole picture. Unfortunately, the relationship between police and communities of color has been damaged by decades of racial disparities in arrests and stop-and-frisk practices, and in disparate use of excessive force. The legacy of broken-windows policing is that communities of color are policed differently than white communities.
The fundamental shift in policing from a guardian mentality to a warrior mentality has also increased the chasm between police and the people they have sworn an oath to serve and protect. When you consider that chasm, and the disproportionate risk faced by unarmed black men, it is easier to understand the trauma that people of color experience around the issue.
Just as many people fear terrorism and we have devoted significant resources to reduce the (extremely low) threat that we face from terrorism, we should all be concerned about police killings and should be devoting resources that will reduce that threat.
I agree with Tibbitts that a broken relationship between police and the community makes us less safe. Effective policing depends on mutual respect and trust. But we cannot simply “put to rest” the issue of police killing of people of color. Real work needs to be done to create an atmosphere where all community members feel safe and respected and where all police officers have the trust and respect of the people they serve. That is why many police departments have instituted reforms designed to improve the relationship between the police and the community and to increase the trust that the community has in the police.
The Police Executive Research Forum has recommended 30 “Guiding Principles on Use of Force,” starting with the principle that “[t]he sanctity of human life should be at the heart of everything an agency does.” And groups such as the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice and Fair & Impartial Policing provide training designed to foster a relationship between police and the communities they serve.
This isn’t a zero-sum game. As the Police Executive Research Forum notes, “changing how agencies approach certain types of critical incidents can increase officer safety in those situations.” Improving trust in police requires a paradigm shift. We can all be safer when we implement police reforms that address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system and that build up relationships between police and community.
Teresa Nelson is interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.