Cleveland Killings Highlight Epidemic of Police Violence in U.S.

Cleveland police kill black couple with 137 bullets
Police violence Against Black Americans is rampant

AFRICANGLOBE – In Cleveland, Ohio on November 29, Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell, both unarmed, were killed in a hail of 137 bullets fired by 13 officers. On December 15, Chicago police shot and killed Jamaal Moore, who was unarmed, after they struck him with a police car. On August 11, police chased down and executed Darrius Kennedy in broad daylight in New York City. The back-to-back killings of Manuel Diaz and Joel Acevedo on July 21 and July 22 in Anaheim, California prompted angry protests and a police crackdown in which nine people were arrested.

These recent shootings are particularly savage examples of a broader social trend. Largely hidden from public view, police kill an average of between one and two people in America every day. Since the Cleveland, Ohio shootings on November 29, at least 14 people have been confirmed killed by the police in the US.

In Brunswick, Ohio on December 1, a police SWAT team surrounded the house of a man who had threatened to hurt his ex-girlfriend. After a 30-hour standoff, the man was shot multiple times and died. In Sasabe, Arizona on December 2, a border patrol agent fatally shot an undocumented immigrant attempting to cross the border after a physical altercation. The list goes on.

Across the country, Black Americans confront mounting state violence and repression from increasingly militarized police forces. The behavior of the police in the US more and more reflects, in various ways, the murder and mayhem visited by the US military on populations in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa.

The United States is a country where remote drone pilots routinely destroy vehicles and buildings full of people far from any battlefield with the push of a button, referring to the victims as “bug splats.” These “targeted killings” are not taking place in a vacuum. They are bound up with social relations within the US. Under circumstances where the national government has openly carried out thousands of extra-judicial killings in recent years, it should come as no surprise that a culture of impunity and indifference to democratic rights has developed among the local police forces.

Among those sections of the mainstream US media that do not present even the most egregious police shootings as entirely justified, the criticisms are inevitably framed in terms of a few “bad apples,” “rogue officers,” “racist cops,” and so on. On the contrary, the participation of some 13 officers in the Cleveland, Ohio shooting, which had all the markings of a military combat operation, points to a far more grave situation.

Comprehensive statistics on police violence in the US are not available, as the national statistics bureaus are under special instructions not to compile them (while statistics on the most obscure criminological categories are reported in great detail). However, the available evidence points to a sharp rise in police violence, not just in terms of the number of incidents, but also in terms of their brutality.

The FBI does release annual statistics for a category entitled “justifiable homicide by weapon, law enforcement,” defined as “the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty.” This figure remained around 400 per year from 2007 to 2011. The number of such killings so far in 2012 is estimated at 525 or more.

The FBI’s “justifiable homicide” statistics far understate the true scale of violence. For example, these statistics do not include many deaths from tasers, restraint, or beatings, particularly inside the massive US prison system, as coroners often attribute such deaths to “natural causes” or “excited delirium” on the part of the victim, instead of homicide.

Police Violence Mainly Against African Americans

NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy more police violence
NYPD’s policy of stop-and-frisk mostly affect Blacks

Many police departments are known to underreport their “justifiable homicides” to the FBI. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department was compelled to admit in a lawsuit that there were 79 fatal police shootings from 2000 to 2005, while it had reported only 38. Naturally, the FBI statistics also do not account for episodes of police violence in which the individual survives, even if the person sustains permanent disfiguring or disabling injuries.

Despite their limitations, the FBI statistics point to a number of disturbing trends. In 2007, police committed 19 “justifiable homicides” with rifles (military hardware increasingly coming into use by local police forces); in 2011, the FBI reported 33 such killings with rifles.

To take the example of one major US city, Los Angeles police were involved in 63 shootings in 2011, a 50 percent increase over any of the previous four years, according to the Los Angeles Police Commission. Falsified police reports of so-called “officer-involved shootings” are part of the norm. An investigation last year by a government oversight entity in Los Angeles found that, of the shootings in which the police reported that they fired in “self-defense” because the person was “reaching for his waistband,” more than half of those shot were actually unarmed.