by Donovan X. Ramsey
The family of Miriam Carey, the 34-year-old woman who was shot to death outside the Capitol a few weeks ago, has asked for a federal investigation into her death.
“A lawyer representing Carey’s family has sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney General claiming police violated Carey’s civil rights and used excessive force,” reports a local Stamford, Conn. outlet, where the slain mother was from.
When D.C. police killed Carey in October, the country was once again thrown into a conversation around the use of deadly force—especially as Carey’s 14-month-old daughter was in the back seat of the vehicle as police fired on it.
That tragedy is the most recent in a series of high-profile cases in which unarmed black suspects have been killed by authorities under controversial circumstances.
Revisiting tragic incidents
In September, after surviving a car accident, former Florida A&M University football player Jonathan Ferrell was shot 10 times and killed by police in North Carolina while seeking help.
News reports tell of many more stories that ended in similar tragedies, such as those of Ramarley Graham, a teen who was killed in his home after fleeing New York City police officers in 2012, andKenneth Chamberlain, Sr., an elderly Whiten Plains, New York resident who was killed by officers dispatched to his home after his medical alert device went off.
Reynaldo Cuevas is another innocent victim whose life was cut short by a police bullet.
All were shot and killed by police officers through what their surviving loved ones believe was excessive force.
Even with the prevalence of such high-profile cases, there is still surprisingly very little official data available regarding the number of people killed by police every year, or how often the use excessive force was suspected.
Little tracking of excessive force accusations
Despite a provision in the 1994 Crime Control Act requiring the collection of this information and the annual publishing of related findings, the U.S. Department of Justice has only released a few sporadic tracking reports.
The data deficit is due to a lack of cooperation from many of the nation’s 18,000 local police departments and the lack of legislation in states needed to mandate it, experts say. As a result, there are no comprehensive figures on how often deaths like those of Carey, Graham, and Ferrell occur.
“Getting data to track these incidents is critical,” says Loyda Colon, co-director of the Justice Committee, a police watchdog organization based in New York City. “For example, we’ve been talking about the issue of Stop and Frisk for years now. The city only started responding, and the public at large was forced to address it, after data came out that illustrated the scale of the problem. Those numbers hit a nerve. They make it real for people.”
The police officer’s dilemma
Why do officers seem to so frequently engage in such behavior when a potential suspect is black? In response to a similar question, in 2002 psychologists at the University of Colorado at Boulder published The Police Officer’s Dilemma, a look at how racial bias impacts decisions to shoot.
Inspired by the police killing of Amadou Diallo in 1999, researchers created a video game in which participants were presented with images of black and white men holding either guns or non-threatening objects. They were asked to make a decision to shoot or not shoot each of the figures based on whether the target was armed.
Psychologists found that participants hesitated longer to shoot, and were more likely not to shoot, when an armed target was white. They shot armed targets more quickly and more often when they were black. Unarmed black targets triggered more “false alarms,” and were shot. These effects were consistent across all demographics and were present even though participants reported not holding discriminatory views.
Damon K. Jones, a New York representative for Blacks In Law Enforcement of America (BLEA), is not surprised.
“Even black law enforcement officers have been victims when off duty, or in plain clothes,” says Jones. “In fact, here in New York, former Governor Paterson’s Police on Police Shooting Task Force found that race plays a factor in the decision to shoot a subject.”
Hope on the horizon
There are entities that have recognized the need for scientifically gathered data on this critical situation.
In July 2013, the Center for Policing Equity at the University of California, Los Angeles received a one million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation to collect data on racial profiling in policing, including the use of excessive force.
“You never want to say that the seeds of revolution in an institution lie at the clerical level. It’s a very uncool thing to say, but in this case it’s really true,” says Phillip Atiba Goff, a professor of social psychology at UCLA, and the director of the Center for Policing Equity.
Goff says the new database will provide a way to analyze racial profiling and use of excessive force data in a way that will help individual police departments track their statistics and hold themselves accountable.
“Because there are no national standards, it’s difficult to get at what’s going on across all these different departments,” Goff says. “One that we’ve worked with literally has a packet that’s about three to five inches thick for every incident involving use of force. Another department literally has a two-sided form that sometimes isn’t even all the way filled out. In major cities, you see these types of discrepancies.”
The database is still in its beginning stages. Over the next year, researchers, civil liberty experts and law enforcement officials will develop the project by meeting to discuss what data should be captured and the best practices for collecting it. Initially, it will include data from up to 70 police departments across the country.
Will there ever be a federal database?
While this project will offer an impartial starting point, it will be a far cry from an exhausitive database administered federally.
Goff is still optimistic about what the project will offer.
“We’re also going to know a lot more about the factors that aggravate racial disparities in policing and, on the social justice side,” he says, “we’re going to have objective numbers that serve as commonground between law enforcement and the community. If we can say ‘Here’s where we are,’ then we can come together to decide where we want to go.”
For BLEA representative Jones, the primary issue is creating legislation that forces local police departments to report excessive force statistics to a federal body.
“It has always been our argument that policing is the only institution without proper oversight of policy and procedure,” Jones says. “The DOJ [Department of Justice] should be the body to do it but, unfortunately, they have been AWOL on truly investigating the many questionable shootings around the country by law enforcement.”
Ultimately, Colon of the Justice Committee hopes a global system that tracks the use of deadly force by law enforcement will prevent incidents in which police shoot first and ask questions later. “What it really comes down to is transparency and accountability,” she says. “The individual families of those killed deserve answers and so does the community.”
TheGrio.com has asked the Department of Justice for comment on this issue and the allegations made against it, without response.