An epidemic of police violence

Violent cops are a public health threat

Last month, a police officer with the Long Beach Unified School District saw two teenagers fighting on the sidewalk about a block away from the school. The officer pulled over and attempted to stop the fight. One of the teens, 18-year-old Mona Rodriguez, tried to leave the scene by hopping into a nearby car. None of the teens were armed, and there was no indication anyone’s life was in danger. But the officer opened fire into the car as it pulled away, striking Rodriguez in the back of the head.

Rodriguez was taken off life support this week, leaving behind a 5-month-old son. The case has drawn renewed concern over the presence of armed, poorly trained law enforcement officers in schools, as well as the “shoot first, ask questions later” culture that’s become prevalent in many police departments.

New research published in The Lancet confirms that the public health threat posed by violent police officers is significant and growing: from 1980 through 2018, American law enforcement officers killed at least 30,800 people — more than double the federal government’s official tally.

The annual number of police killings has roughly doubled since the late 1980s, from around 600 to around 1,200 in 2018 and 2019. The numbers are high enough to classify police violence as one of the chief causes of death among American men — cops kill more men each year than Hodgkin lymphoma (835 deaths), testicular cancer (486 deaths), or heat and cold exposure (931 deaths).

“Police are trained that any interaction can turn deadly and that they should react as such,” the authors write. “Heavily armed officers can dangerously escalate situations that never needed violent intervention” — precisely what happened in the Mona Rodriguez case.

They note that police killings are not evenly distributed across the population. In per-capita terms, Black Americans are more than twice as likely as Whites to be killed by the police. The police mortality rate among Black Americans has decreased considerably since the 1980s, although it has started edging upward again in the 21st century. Police mortality is up sharply among white Americans since 2010, driving the increase in the overall mortality rate over that time period.

“Long-standing research in the USA has well established that the disproportionate amount of police violence against Black Americans is driven by systemic racism,” the authors write. “Black Americans experience disproportionately high levels of police contact, even for crimes that Black and White Americans commit at the same rates, such as certain drug offences, and for interactions that are not triggered by criminal activity, such as investigatory traffic stops.”

The study notes that a number of common policy responses to police violence, including body cameras, training in de-escalation and implicit bias, and diversifying police forces, “have all failed to further meaningfully reduce police violence rates.” A number of large cities have reduced police killings, however, by implementing policies that ban officers from shooting non-violent fleeing suspects.

But for those policies to work, officers have to understand and abide by them. Police officers with the Long Beach Unified School District, for instance, are banned from shooting at moving vehicles and from shooting at fleeing suspects. Neither policy was sufficient to prevent Mona Rodriguez’ death.