George Floyd’s death is properly the responsibility of the senior arresting officer on the scene. Had that officer’s training been better, Floyd might be alive today.
Had the officer been disciplined or fired for prior improper behavior, Floyd might be alive today. Had the Minneapolis City Council, mayor, and local district attorney done a better job at police department oversight, Floyd might be alive today. Had local politicians not been so concerned about winning the approval of the powerful Minneapolis police union, Floyd might be alive today.
In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell posits that culture can be a contributing factor in catastrophic airplane crashes. Beyond pilot error, most crashes feature other problems. By themselves, these problems are not fatal, but when added together they result in a cascade of failure: bad weather, low visibility, a minor mechanical failure such as a broken warning indicator light, contaminated fuel, engine failure, or a bird strike.
Floyd’s death offers a parallel list of failures. Many of them could be addressed with deliberation, persistence, and follow-up — things notoriously in short supply in our political system. Other systemic failures may take decades to improve. A few might be beyond the reach of effective government action, though likely not for lack of trying.
ENCOUNTERS WITH POLICE
One factor likely influencing fatal police encounters is frequency of contact with law enforcement. A few factors other than systemic racism could explain this.
Police encounters are often initiated because of the need for probable cause to detain suspects. Any traffic violation provides an excuse for a law enforcement officer to pull over a driver and ask questions. This action most frequently results in a ticket or warning, but as police examine a car and its driver, they may develop information that leads to an arrest.
This is the root of the “driving while black” complaint of many of our fellow Americans who suffer a higher rate of being pulled over. Even Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, in a statement on the Senate floor in 2016, noted that in 2015, he was pulled over seven times — twice for speeding and five times for “driving while black.”
“Imagine the frustration, the irritation, the sense of a loss of dignity that accompanies each of those stops,” Scott implored his colleagues. “I have felt the anger, the frustration, the sadness, and the humiliation that comes with feeling that you’re being targeted for nothing more than just being yourself.”
If being pulled over for no apparent reason leads to justifiable anger, imagine having the police seize any cash in your car — or even your car itself. This is where civil asset forfeiture comes in. With its roots in maritime law dealing with piracy, modern civil asset forfeiture was created and expanded in response to the growing sophistication of international drug kingpins during the 1980s.
The practice allowed law enforcement agencies to keep the proceeds of items, including cash, seized during illicit drug investigations or even routine traffic stops — even if no guilty verdict was achieved or no one was even charged with a crime. It became very tempting, as cash and other valuables enrich law enforcement organizations without the need for taxpayer dollars. It’s essentially “found money.”
Civil asset forfeiture increases negative encounters with law enforcement. Possible reforms include requiring that any assets taken by law enforcement go to the state general fund, which would remove the profit motive for local police, sheriffs, and district attorneys. At the federal level, the Department of Justice can end the practice of “equitable sharing” which allows local law enforcement to bypass state restrictions on the use of civil asset forfeiture.
Using law enforcement as a revenue-generating arm of government also increases adverse encounters with police officers. This was a huge irritant in Ferguson, Missouri, and other towns where various fines and fees, including court fees, have become a significant source of government revenue. When someone is levied a fine for an infraction (say, uncut grass), failure to pay can lead to an arrest warrant.
The death of Eric Garner during an arrest in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s New York City in July 2014 is another example. Garner was accused of selling “loosies” — individual cigarettes without a tax stamp. In NYC at the time, cigarettes came with $5.85 in state and city taxes per pack of 20. No wonder an estimated half of all cigarettes smoked in New York are smuggled in.
Law enforcement’s time and effort ought to be invested in preventing and solving crime, two difficult tasks that are far more readily accomplished with community support. Collecting cigarette taxes and arresting people for unpaid fines make the vital work of public safety much more difficult.
While reforming civil asset forfeiture and the use of fines and fees to fund government will reduce the chances for police-involved deaths, especially among the poor and minorities, violent crime is a far more difficult issue.
MILITARIZATION OF POLICE
In response to the rising violence that crested in the early 1990s, police culture became increasingly “militarized,” shifting officers’ mental framework from that of community guardian to that of an occupying force. This change in attitude, often starting at the police academy, occurred over decades and will likely require time and a concerted effort from the bottom up to shift back. It too often manifests itself in quickly resorting to SWAT teams, heavily armed no-knock entries into homes at 2 a.m., and the increasing use of surplus military equipment. All of these increase the odds of a fatal police encounter.
Violent crime is key factor when considering police shootings. From 2014 to 2018, according to the federal crime victimization report, an average of 1.08 percent of whites reported being the victim of violent crime, compared to 1.23 percent of blacks — with blacks’ victimization rate about 13 percent higher. More victims generally mean more calls to police for help.
Furthermore, in 2018, some 70.3 percent of the time that blacks were victims of a violent incident, the perpetrator was another black person. Yet in Minneapolis today, some groups are urging residents not to call 911 in response to an emergency. This may end up creating far more victims of crime, some of whom will die as a result, than would ever be the case due to a fatal police encounter.
Meanwhile, Chicago just suffered its most violent day in 60 years on May 31, with 18 people killed. Over the entire weekend, 25 people were killed and another 85 wounded by gunfire. Should this increase in violence continue, much of the current debate over policing will likely be forgotten as a nation besieged by crime might return to a familiar playbook.
It was rampant violence back in the early 1990s that led President Bill Clinton, then-Sen. Joe Biden, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, then a member of the House, to support the bipartisan 1993 crime bill. Both the House and Senate featured Democratic majorities that year. That crime bill funded 100,000 new police officers and started a prison construction boom.
Yet the violent crime rate had peaked in 1991, at a rate of 758.2 per 100,000 people, more than double the rate in the most recent year reported, 388.9 per 100,000 in 2018.
DEMOGRAPHICS OF PERPETRATORS
Violent crime is mainly the domain of young, single men. The most recent criminal victimization report from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, found that in 2018, males were responsible for 77 percent of violent incidents, females for 18.3 percent, and males and females acting together for 4.7 percent.
In a recent Washington Post article detailing police shootings, the authors note, “The overwhelming majority of people killed are armed. Nearly half of all people fatally shot by police are white.” The authors found, “Fatal police shootings are relatively rare events,” and most of the “[h]undreds of thousands of police officers … will never fire their guns on duty” during their careers. Further, 94 percent of the 5,400 people shot and killed by police since 2015 were armed with some sort of weapon — more than 3,000 with guns. “About one in four had some mental-health issues.”
The article went on to detail the racial and ethnic makeup of those shot and killed by police, noting:
White people, who account for 60 percent of the American population, made up 45 percent of those shot and killed by police. Black people make up 13 percent of the population but have accounted for 23 percent of those shot and killed by police.
When providing data on shootings and race and ethnicity, context is vital — context that when missing can lead to deeply unserious proposals such as the demand to “defund the police.”
The most recent crime victimization report found different demographic groups have different rates of committing violent crimes. White, non-Hispanics made up 62.3 percent of the population but committed 50.2 percent of violent crimes. Blacks were 12 percent of the population and committed 21.7 percent of violent incidents. Hispanics accounted for 17.1 percent of the population and 14.4 percent of violent incidents. While Asians made up 6.3 percent of the population, they committed only 2.5 percent of the incidents. The prior year’s report found that white suspects committed 49.2 percent of nonfatal violent incidents while black suspects committed 24.5 percent.
The offender data for 2017 and 2018 tracks closely with the Washington Post’s findings on the demographics of those shot and killed by police. Without mentioning the statistical connection between fatal police shootings and the rate of violent criminal acts, a reasonable reader of the Washington Post article might conclude that systemic racism within police departments is the main thing driving the higher likelihood of police shooting and killing black Americans.
Lastly, the role of healthy families, vibrant communities, and a strong economy can’t be understated. Violent crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and policing isn’t its main deterrent.
That said, if calls to “defund the police” result in reduced budgets and dismantled police departments, America is likely to see some of its cities get “mugged by reality” in the near future — with the preponderance of harm visited not upon generally wealthier and whiter suburbs, but upon those urban communities most vulnerable to crime.