How to police the police is a question as old as civilization, now given special urgency by a St. Louis County grand jury’s return of a “no bill” of indictment for Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in his fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown. The result is shocking to many, depressingly predictable to more than a few.
Can the cops be controlled? It’s never been easy: according to one old sociological chestnut, the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence is what defines modern government, and this monopoly is jealously protected against the second-guessing of puny civilians. All over the country, the issue of restraining police power is framed around the retribution against individual cops, from Staten Island to Milwaukee to Los Angeles. But is this the best way to impose discipline on law enforcement and roll back what even Republican appellate court appointees are calling rampant criminalization?
Police shootings in America
First, the big picture. Last year, the FBI tallied 461 “justifiable homicides” committed by law enforcement—justifiable because the Bureau assumes so, and the nation’s courts have not found otherwise. This is the highest number in two decades, even as the nation’s overall homicide rate continues to drop. Homicides committed by on-duty law enforcement make up 3 percent of the 14,196 homicides committed in the United States in 2013. A USA Today analysis of the FBI database found an average of about ninety-six police homicides a year in which a white officer kills a black person.
The FBI’s police homicide stats are fuzzy, and they are surely an undercount, given that they come from voluntary reports to the FBI from police departments all over the country. That the federal government does not keep a strict national tally shows just how seriously it takes this problem. A crowdsourced database has sprung up to fill the gap, as has a wiki-tabulation.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about these police killings, many of them of unarmed victims, is that our courts find them perfectly legal.
SCOTUS and the license to kill
Chapter 563 of the Missouri Revised Statutes grants a lot of discretion to officers of the law to wield deadly force, to the horror of many observers swooping in to the Ferguson story. The statute authorizes deadly force “in effecting an arrest or in preventing an escape from custody” if the officer “reasonably believes” it is necessary in order to “to effect the arrest and also reasonably believes that the person to be arrested has committed or attempted to commit a felony…or may otherwise endanger life or inflict serious physical injury unless arrested without delay.”