Police Shootings Are Becoming All Too Familiar

In South Carolina, the death of 50-year-old Walter Scott has sparked protests in the city of Charleston. He was shot at eight times as he tried to run away from a white police officer, Michael Slager, after being pulled over for a traffic violation on Saturday morning. This is the most recent in a long line of police officers killing unarmed black men, but it would appear that this is much more common than many would think.

This is just one of the many deaths that has highlighted a deep rooted racism within the US police force and put the country’s justice system into question. One of the reasons Walter Scott’s death has received coverage from international media is because a video, which emerged yesterday, provided evidence that the police officer was lying about the incident. According to The Post and Courier, who were the first to receive the footage, the video was the first piece of evidence contradicting Officer Slager’s account of events. He had claimed that there was a struggle between himself and Mr. Scott for control of his taser gun, which resulted in the shooting. However, the video clearly shows that the unarmed victim had been tasered and then his back was shot at eight times as he ran away from the police officer. The policeman is seen placing his stun gun beside the body and no CPR is attempted, although the officer initially claimed there was.

As a result of the video Michael Slager has been dismissed from the police force and charged with murder, which is unusual in this type of incident. Speaking on NBC’s Today Show earlier today, Walter Scott’s father said that without the video “It would have never come to light. They would have swept it under the rug like they’ve done many others… When I saw it I feel to my feet. My heart was broken”.

[pullquote] “Every 28 hours a black man, woman or child is murdered by police or vigilante law enforcement” [/pullquote]

The group Black Lives Matter was founded in 2012 to fight for black people’s rights in the US after the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The group claims: “Every 28 hours a black man, woman or child is murdered by police or vigilante law enforcement”. This figure would mean that 313 black people are killed this way every year. Although, there is no way to confirm this figure, as in the US there are no official national statistics on the number of officers involved in fatalities, it would appear that this is a feasible figure.

civil rights protest
Protest by Black Lives Matter. Photo: Tsige Tafesse

At present, local police forces are not required to report fatal shootings to the federal government. However, last month President Obama’s task force on police reform, which was set up after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York, recommended a number of justice reforms, including the  introduction of policies which require local law enforcement to “collect, maintain, and report data to the Federal Government on all officer-involved shootings, whether fatal or nonfatal”. The task force also recommended “the use of external and independent prosecutors in cases of police use of force resulting in death.”

[pullquote] “The Bureau of Justice Statistics has recorded 5,324 killings committed by the police between the years of 2003-2009 and 2011. [/pullquote]

These recommendations seem to be a good idea as statistics on the number of law enforcement related deaths vary greatly. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has recorded 5,324 killings committed by the police between the years of 2003-2009 and 2011. However, because many local law enforcement agencies do not report their fatalities, it estimates that the figure is actually closer to 7,427 during these eight years.

While many of these deaths may have been justified and may not have been an issue of race, another government document that should be mentioned is the report on the Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, which was also initiated after the death of Michael Brown.

[pullquote] “They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience… [/pullquote]

Last month the release of the report confirmed that the police force in Ferguson were in violation of the first and fourth amendments of the American Constitution, which guarantee free speech and protect against unlawful searches. The report stated: “Many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African American neighbourhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue… They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence….” It also revealed the racist actions of the city’s court system, which “violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements”.

Michael Brown Protest
Protest at the Ferguson Police Department after the death of Michael Brown. Photo: Jamelle Bouie

The report also showed that between 2012 and 2014 African Americans accounted for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests made by Ferguson police officers, despite comprising only 67% of Ferguson’s population. The report also went on to say that “Nearly 90% of documented force used by FPD officers was used against African Americans. In every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the person bitten was African American.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin. It brought unequal voting and racial segregation to an end. The Civil Rights Movement which fought for these equal rights for more than a decade came to an end soon after this act was brought into law. More than fifty years later, it seems that American society has a place for a new civil rights movement to end racial discrimination in the US.

It is impossible to list all those who were killed in American police shootings in recent years, but here are some of the more prominent and alarming incidents of policemen killing black men:

  • Last month a homeless man known as Africa was shot by police in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles. A video of the homeless man being tased, pinned down by four police men and then shot several times went viral. The man who suffered from mental illness and was a suspect in a robbery dies immediately. An internal investigation by LAPD into the shooting has begun.
Tamir Rice who was shot by police in Cleveland, Ohio
Tamir Rice. Photo: Justice for Tamir Rice
  • Tamir Rice (12) was shot by policeman Timothy Loehmann in November 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. Police received a call about a boy in the playground pointing a gun at people in the park, although the caller noted it was probably a toy gun. When the officer reached the playground, he shot Tamir Rice in the chest as he reached for his toy gun. He died the next day. The case against the officer has not been heard yet.
  • Akai Gurley (28) was shot dead by Officer Peter Liang in an unlit stairwell in a New York City apartment block in November 2014. In February, the police officer was charged with manslaughter.
  • Darrien Hunt (22) was shot in September 2014 in Utah while he was carrying a replica of a samurai sword as part of an anime costume. According to The Guardian, police officers were responding to reports that there was a man with a samurai sword at a local mall. The police involved say they had to shoot the young man in self-defence, while his family’s lawyer argue that he was shot in the back; no charges were pressed against the policemen.
  • Jonathan Ferrell (24) was shot in September 2014 in North Carolina. According to The Huffington Post, he was unarmed and looking for help in the middle of the night after he was in a car accident. He approached the houses to seek help, but locals called the police. On arrival the police tried to tase Mr Ferrell and then shot him. The police officer was charged with voluntary manslaughter.
ferguson protests
Michael Brown. Photo: Loavesofbread
  • Michael Brown (18) was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri last August by police officer Darren Wilson. The details surrounding the shooting are still unclear and in dispute, although it is known that Michael Ferguson was unarmed and facing the police officer before being shot several times. The Department of Justice cleared the officer of civil right violations. This verdict, as well as the shooting itself, caused mass protests across the whole of the US.
  • John Crawford III (22) was shot dead by police in Dayton, Ohio in August 2014 while he was holding a BB gun inside a Walmart. The police had received a call that there was a man in the store with a gun. The two policemen involved were not charged.
  • Ezell Ford (25) was shot dead in Los Angeles in August 2014. Accounts of the incident vary, with police officers saying they shot in self-defence as Ezell attacked them, while the victim’s mother claims he was unarmed and on the ground when he was shot. The officers involved have not yet been charged, but the LAPD is being sued by his family.
  • In July 2014, Eric Garner (43) died in New York City after being placed in a chokehold by a police officer for resisting arrest. Despite saying he could not breathe, the chokehold continued. Protests erupted last December after the policeman responsible for his death was not charged.
  • In July 2012 another mentally ill and homeless black man, Milton Hall (49), had 46 bullets fired at him by police in the state of Michigan. Again, a video of the incident emerged, this time more than two years later. After an argument with a shop assistant, eight white police men and a police dog surrounded the man who was holding a pen knife. According to The Independent, when he stepped forward he was shot at and hit 14 times. His death also sparked protests, but the Department of Justice decided against bringing charges against the police officers involved. Milton Hall had worked with the famous Rosa Parks during the Civil Rights Movement.
Trayvon Martin
Protests after the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Photo: Ryan Vaarsi
  • Trayvon Martin (17) was killed by a civilian neighbourhood watch officer, George Zimmerman, in Florida on February 2012. The man admitted to shooting the unarmed youth, but claimed he did it in self-defence.  After thousands of protestors called for his arrest and an investigation, Mr Zimmerman was charged with the murder/ manslaughter, but was found not guilty due to a lack of evidence.

 

These are just a fraction of the African American men who have been killed by police officers in the US. Perhaps, some of the shootings were justified, but I’m sure Irish people will breathe a sigh of relief that most Gardaí are not allowed to carry guns.

 

Photos by: Taylor Johnson, Tsige Tafesse via Black Lives Matter

 

 

 

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