By Sean Glendon
In the recent past, I’ve focused my writing within this publication to more light-hearted topics than I had when I initially began writing. My writing shifted from that of standard, serious academia to more sarcasm and humor. This topic is one that needs to be discussed and in a way that requires sincerity, and seriousness. In our September/October 2013 issue, I wrote an article entitled “Stop Sensationalizing Shooters” in the wake of the September 16, 2013 Washington Navy Yard shooting. This article, which is available to view online, argued that the media’s glorification of mass killers was grossly inappropriate and had the potential to encourage copycats looking for attention. In that instance, I was opposed to the approach taken by the media. I have previously been outspoken against the actions of the media in other circumstances, and rightfully so.
When it comes to media coverage, certain stories are held on to for dear life to suck up the attention of viewers. CNN absolutely obsessed over missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 for a very extended period of time, disregarding various other topics of importance at the time. In a limited news cycle, more coverage of one topic will lead to less coverage of another topic. In most cases in the modern era, the overcovered topic ends up being one of extremely limited significance relative to other topics. Possibly the most clear cut example of the poor prioritization of the media occurred on January 22, 2014 when MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell interrupted Congresswoman Jane Harman’s discussion of the NSA surveilling Americans for the “Breaking News” that Justin Bieber was arrested. This was by no means an isolated incident, and shows the extent of the downfall of the intellectual media. Of course, it can be easily argued that Americans care more about trivial topics like celebrities than matters of politics and substance and as a result the news corporations focus their attention to these more profitable topics. In general, the media sensationalizes whatever will sell and as of late, what sells is death at the hand of police officers.
It is no secret that militarization within the police force in America has occurred. Pistols have been replaced with assault rifles in many cases, and the frequency of the use of SWAT teams has increased to the point that they have become commonplace in drug busts. On the other hand, American citizens have become more armed with a weapon of their own: the smartphone. With the creation and increased availability of the smartphone, the citizen journalist became an unavoidable force to be reckoned with. Now, anything questionable done in public has a high chance of being documented and shared with the world. CNN has over one million registered iReporters, and that number continues to grow. With the citizen journalist and the high-speed exchange of information, we have the ability to be in the eye of the storm like Hurricane Sandy. We can be in the crowd of the Boston Marathon as pressure cooker bombs explode. We can be a part of the celebrations when our team wins the Super Bowl. We can be a part of an anti-austerity riot in Greece.We can be on Bay Street in Staten Island as Eric Garner’s life flashes before his eyes at the hands of an NYPD officer.
And it isn’t just Eric Garner. It’s Michael Brown. It’s Tamir Rice. It’s Jason Harrison. It’s Walter Scott. It’s Eric Harris. It’s Freddie Gray. And it’s whoever else is killed by a police officer between my typing and your reading, because in all likelihood there will be another name added to this list by then. There has been absolute outrage to these deaths, and a perceived increase in police brutality. However, many experts have argued that there isn’t actually an increase in police brutality, but an increase in cell phones and thus documentation of the police brutality.
In 2014, at least 1,100 people were killed by police, and at least 91 people were killed by police in January 2015. The FBI estimates that 400 people are killed by police annually, but their statistics are created from voluntary reports that only 4% of law enforcement agencies offer. Assuming the number 1,100, which comes from Killed By Police and has information about each person and includes news reports, is correct, there was a 43.4% increase in deaths at the hand of police between 2013 and 2014. In 2013, 767 people were killed by police, making police more fatal than accidental firearm discharge (505 deaths in 2013), tuberculosis (555 deaths in 2013), and syphilis (49). Are police worse than an STD that gives those with it genital sores? Well, police are more likely to kill you than syphilis.
Clearly, there is some disparity between reported numbers and actual deaths. If something is to be done about police brutality, it would be beneficial to understand the extent of the problem. Unfortunately, realistically this is only something that can be tracked going forward as it would be extremely difficult to retroactively correct these numbers.
There is another misconception that being a police officer is a job that is full of danger and requires constant fear for one’s life, but when the Bureau of Labor Statistics released data on fatal work injuries in 2013, police officer was nowhere to be found on the top 10 most dangerous jobs list. Being a truck driver, working in construction or being a roofer or pilot are all more dangerous than being a police officer, with logging jobs being the most dangerous jobs. Interestingly enough, being a “pig” is less dangerous than working with pigs, as “Farmers, Ranchers, and Other Agricultural Managers” made the list.
Police brutality is a problem filled with misperceptions and miscalculations. Since numbers are inaccurate, experts have to rely on hunches more so than hard data to determine if there has been an increase in police brutality or just an increase in coverage. Either way, something must be done to curb the violence of those with the duty to protect the public at large. It is important to note that the police have a duty to protect the public at large, not YOU, as Warren v. District of Columbia determined: “the duty to provide public services is owed to the public at large, and, absent a special relationship between the police and an individual, no specific legal duty exists.” So what can be done about this problem?
For one, the media should continue to focus their attention on these killings when they occur. Clearly, I am quick to hate on the media but this is something that deserves attention. An aware public is a catalyst to change, and raising awareness is something positive that the media can be done. However, the narratives that the media portray the victims are often done in ways to tarnish their reputation, almost justifying the killing by the police. While a balanced and unbiased reporting job should be done, the presentation of facts often turns into a mudslinging campaign. Even somebody with multiple prior convictions should not be killed over selling cigarettes. Robbery is not punishable by death. The police have been using aggressive force to overstep their boundaries and have become the judge, jury and executioner in many cases. And most times, there is no trial at all. The “criminal” is hit with a bullet instead of a gavel, and the officer behind the gun manages to be cleared of charges without a trial. Going against the presumption of innocence, the “criminal” is left lifeless and defenseless, while there is no opportunity to prove the police officer guilty of anything. A police officer could justifiably kill somebody under certain circumstances, but isn’t that for a jury to decide?
Since the increase in cell phones has led to an increased awareness of this huge problem, there should be more consideration to another use of cameras – mandatory body-worn cameras for police. Police Foundation Executive Fellow, Chief Tony Farrar, conducted a study on body cameras and his study suggested “more than a 50% reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force compared to control-conditions, and nearly ten times more citizens’ complaints in the 12-months prior to the experiment.” Not only would body cameras prevent misbehavior, but in the case of an incident, an accurate depiction of events would be more readily available for the appropriate parties to view and analyze. Between dashcams, civilians with cell phones and police worn body cameras, it would be relatively clear as to what transpired in such an instance.
Eric Garner’s last words were “I can’t breath.” “Fuck your breath,” Eric Harris was told as his life was taken. Americans are holding their breath in fear of increasing police authority and militarization. We deserve to breath a sigh of relief.