“Police brutality in the United States is not worse. Phones and social media just make it feel that way.”
I see and hear some version of that thought pretty much every single day.
It’s a lie. It sounds good. I wish that was what we were dealing with right now. But it’s not.
See, some things are hard to measure.
Racism itself is difficult to measure. We can measure hate crimes — which are absolutely an indicator. We can measure reports of discrimination. We can measure the number of times hateful words are being used across the internet. Those things all help us measure racism, but it can sometimes be nebulous. Some of the most destructive forms of racism — like being denied a home loan or being passed on for a job where you are the most qualified candidate — are hard to measure in real time.
Police brutality is not that.
We can measure it. We can track it. In fact, every single day of the week, I study every single case of every single person who was killed by police.
Each case is unique. I know they seem to all blend and blur together sometimes, but each victim, each story, each city, each cop, each police department, each circumstance is unique.
But the one thing I can measure with absolute certainty is whether or not the number of people killed by police in this country is rising or falling. That’s not esoteric. It’s not theoretical.
And when people say things like, “Police brutality is not getting worse, social media and cell phones just show it more,” I know why they think that.
Social media and cell phones have indeed taken what was the secretly lived reality for people in this country — it’s taken that horrible reality and made it mainstream.
Truthfully, until 2014, when police killed Eric Garner and Mike Brown and John Crawford and Tamir Rice, most stories of police brutality lived in the shadows. Most of us would struggle to name a single person killed by police in 2011 or 2012 or 2013. So yes, it’s true, cell phone cameras and social media make police brutality more known, but I am here to report to you the painful fact that the problem is actually getting worse.
According to Killed by Police, a website that has painstakingly tracked police killings since 2013, there have been more police killings thus far this year than in the same timespan in any of the last five years. That means the problem is getting worse. It doesn’t just feel worse. It’s not just the cameras and the hashtags. It’s actually getting worse.
And it’s important for us to acknowledge this reality because I think it actually feels like it’s getting worse. That horrible feeling is backed up by measurable facts.
On the heels of the racist murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, we entered 2014 with our nerves already frayed about what was going on in this country. When police in New York, Ohio, and Ferguson then killed Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Mike Brown — three unarmed black men — in a span of three weeks in the summer of 2014, a movement was sparked.
And so it may feel like 2014 was the worst year for police brutality because in that year we became activated to how serious the problem was and we learned more of the names and stories. But this year, despite all our activism around police violence, is likely to be worse.
By April 15 of 2014, at least 293 people had been killed by American police. By the end of the year, the number totaled 1,114.
By April 15 of 2015, the number had increased to 350 people killed by police. By the end of the year, the number rose by a staggering 108 fatalities over the year before to 1,222 people killed by American police.
By April 15 of 2016, the number declined slightly to 348 people. By the end of the year 1,171 people had been killed by police — a drop of 51 people.
Now, we have to remember, those may just be numbers for us, but many of us celebrated when we saw that drop because those are 51 lives — 51 mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, who are still alive.
By April 15 of 2017, the first year of the Trump administration, with 346 people killed by police, it looked like the numbers were going to stay steady. But by the end of the year, with 1,194 people killed, there was an increase of 23 people over 2016.
And this year is worse. We’re up to 378 people killed by April 15, the highest yet. If this trend continues, this could be the first year tracked by the site where we have 1,300 people killed by police in the United States.
It was my long-held belief that police brutality would increase under the Trump administration. While nearly all policing decisions are made at the state or county level, Trump has already signaled to police that he is in their corner and has made remarks suggesting that he didn’t really mind a little police brutality here and there. The Department of Justice meanwhile made clear last year that it wouldn’t be spending its resources to hold corrupt police departments accountable when it ended a DOJ program that scrutinized them. Now a recent decision from the conservative-majority Supreme Court has doubled down on protections for police who use force even in situations where it was not called for.
These actions each have a trickle-down effect and it appears we are now living in that effect. In spite of previous police rhetoric claiming they no longer felt comfortable using force, they clearly do. The “Ferguson effect” was a lie. Police are using lethal force even more than in 2014. It hasn’t slowed down — it has sped up.