Michael Brown Shooting

The Ferguson Distraction

A distraction from racist police violence

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Ironically, the shooting death of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown by white Ferguson, MO, police officer Darren Wilson is a distraction from the racist police brutality that ravages America.

Whether or not Wilson shot Brown unjustifiably, and whether or not Brown provoked the shooting by grabbing for Wilson's gun, the police — and the government officials who employ and arm them — are a big problem in this country. (The Eric Garner chokehold killing has none of the ambiguity of the Brown case.)

Unfortunately, it takes a shooting such as the one in Ferguson to spotlight the problem. And that presents its own problem. The claim that the police are routinely dangerous to innocent people — mostly blacks and Hispanics — appears to stand or fall with the headline case of the week. But that can't be the correct way to judge the bigger issue. As Jason Lee Byas writes,

The way people are talking about this case seems to imply that if Wilson's use of force was not in necessary self-defense, the police are out of control — and if it was, everything's fine.…

Even if Darren Wilson turns out to be a near-perfect moral exemplar, the police are out of control.

Reuben Fischer-Baum writes that the shooting in Ferguson has "drawn attention to a remarkable lack of knowledge about a seemingly basic fact: how often people are killed by the police."

The national government purports to keep count of "justifiable" police homicides, but that's apparently all. "'Unjustifiable homicide by police' is not a classification," Fischer-Baum notes.

Among the problems with the collection of data," he writes, is that the "FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program, which compiles the SHR [Supplementary Homicide Report], relies on voluntary involvement of state and local police agencies — a fact that may raise some questions about the integrity of the data."

Thus, he concludes, "the SHR's 'justifiable police homicide' number [400] is not a useful approximation of how many people are killed by the police."

The Wall Street Journal agrees:

Wall Street Journal analysis of the latest data from 105 of the country's largest police agencies found more than 550 police killings during those years were missing from the national tally or, in a few dozen cases, not attributed to the agency involved. The result: It is nearly impossible to determine how many people are killed by the police each year.

The Journal quotes Columbia University law professor Jeffrey Fagan: "When cops are killed, there is a very careful account and there's a national database. Why not the other side of the ledger?"

Data do show that blacks are more likely than whites to fall into police clutches for drug and gunoffenses, even though whites are more likely to commit these victimless so-called crimes. Does anyone doubt that young black males walking down the street are more likely to have a police encounter than young white males are? If you doubt this, you're not paying attention.

The ultimate cause of this problem is that the police are the domestic armed troops of America's rulers — falsely called "representatives" — and the rest of us are the ruled. They know it, and we are increasingly coming to know it. Most of the "laws" they enforce against us violate our natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The chasm between rulers and ruled exists everywhere in the country, but it exists on a spectrum from the barely noticeable to the extreme. Obviously, it's most extreme in poorer black communities, where race and class prejudice sit atop the general disdain for the ruled. (St. Louis County, MO, has gone to outrageous lengths, as Radley Balko shows.)

Some critics of police brutality and racism assume that ending prohibitions on drugs and guns — both worthy ends, of course — would eliminate or reduce police abuse. I'm not convinced. Too many young blacks have been harassed or worse by cops claiming that the "suspects" appeared to be casing a store or engaging in some other suspicious activity having nothing to do with drugs or guns.

Repealing victimless-"crime" statutes is imperative, but we also must rethink the top-down model of policing. After all, London didn't get a police force until 1829. We could declare the experiment a flop and move on.

This article originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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  1. Well, I don’t know about Ferguson, but – clearly – people are learning the “right lessons” from NYC’s latest po po atrocity. The following is a comment in response to an article noting that – just maybe – cops techniques need to change with the [dramatic] drop in violent crime:

    DAVID THOMSON says:
    December 4, 2014 at 10:16 am
    There was no reason to indict the officers. The dead man was huge?and resisting arrest. These cops may have been poorly trained, but that’s not a crime! This was a rather boring confrontation that turned deadly because of the petty criminal’s poor health. How was anyone reasonably expected to know?

    BOOYAH! hth

  2. The claim that the police are routinely dangerous to innocent people ? mostly blacks and Hispanics ? appears to stand or fall with the headline case of the week. But that can’t be the correct way to judge the bigger issue.

    But that’s the problem with everything! No policy issue is properly judged according to where people’s att’n is temporarily.

  3. Anyway, you have the right idea. Statistics should be compared geographically (inter- and intra-nationally) and over time to get clues as to what works & what doesn’t work. I don’t honestly know whether police brutality is worse now than in the past or in other countries.

  4. I applaud Sheldon Richman for keeping the focus on race.

    /progs everywhere

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  6. Does anyone doubt that young black males walking down the street are more likely to have a police encounter than young white males are? If you doubt this, you’re not paying attention.

    The reason that young black males are more likely to have a police encounter is that they engage in violent crime far more often than white people. Check out police and FBI statistics and pay attention to them.

    Blacks commit homicides at a rate several times that of white people. Same with aggravated assault and armed robbery. And there are some crimes which white people almost never commit but are quite commonly perpetrated by blacks–like driveby shootings and flashmob attacks. Criminal justice stats also demonstrate that blacks commit a large number of inter-racial crimes, some of them quite gruesome — like black “teens” beating Zemir Begic to death with hammers in St Louis.

    But this does not fit into prevailing liberal ideology. So Mr. Richman blames some mysterious force called “racism” — perhaps because he does not want to face the unpleasant reality blacks disproportionately committing crimes.

    1. And why do you think that is the case?

      Is I because black people are naturally inferior? Maybe something genetic?

      Or is it because they are the target of an even brutal form of oppression called the welfare state?

      You are very silly. You should look into an authors background before you make assumptions about his positions.

      1. Or is it because they are the target of an even brutal form of oppression called the welfare state?

        The welfare state clearly contributes to black poverty and black social problems, but everybody is covered by the welfare state, so that can’t be the cause. And use of welfare is voluntary, so it’s not “brutal oppression”.

        And why do you think that is the case?

        Why is the Swiss economy better than the Spanish economy? Why is the US economy better than the Cuban economy? Different cultures perform differently for reasons we don’t understand.

        Sowell’s analysis is that the culprit is Southern redneck culture: it leads to high crime rates and low economic performance, regardless of race. It’s a historical accident that that culture correlates with race, simply because a large percentage of the total black population came from the South, while only a small percentage of the white population (and almost no Asians) did.

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  8. Ironically, the shooting death of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown by white Ferguson, MO, police officer Darren Wilson is a distraction from the racist police brutality that ravages America.

    Police brutality is clearly undesirable, but you’re not going to convince people with this ridiculous hyperbole.

    Where is the evidence that police brutality is “ravaging” America? What does that even mean? Police brutality does not seem to be increasing, and it doesn’t affect a lot of people. So in what way is it “ravaging” anybody?

    And where is the evidence that it is “racist”? Police brutality seems to occur roughly in proportion to the frequency at which different groups commit violent crimes.

    1. Typo. What I wanted to say is “So in what way is it “ravaging America”?

      Of course, police brutality is “ravaging” individual victims. But it “ravaging America” implies a very large number of victims and an increase over historical levels, and there is no evidence for either.

  9. You quote that “data from 105 of the country’s largest police agencies found more than 550 police killings during those years were missing from the national tally” and the conclusion “It is nearly impossible to determine how many people are killed by the police each year.”

    That’s, of course, utter nonsense. We can easily extrapolate based on this data to get an upper bound on police killings per year. Under broad definitions of “police killings”, it’s probably around 1000-2000. But more important is what the statistics are on unjustified use of deadly force, and that’s likely to be much smaller, depending on which definition of “justified” you pick (personally, I think Garner was unjustified, Brown was justified).

    Another way we can look at it is that the worst abuses by police are likely those receiving national media attention, and none of the cases that have recently received attention show clear evidence of racism or intent to kill; usually, they just show bad judgment.

    Reason engages in the same hysteria on this issue as other media, painting the world in black-and-white terms, misusing and distorting statistics, and utterly failing to come up with sound policy suggestions. That’s not an effective way of convincing people to adopt different policies. When all is said and done, how our police operates is decided by voters, and most voters (myself included) simply don’t feel that police brutality is a significant risk relative to other risks.

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