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From Minnesota to Dallas: Whose lives matter?

Written By | Jul 8, 2016

WASHINGTON, July 8, 2016 — Details of the shootings of black men in Minnesota and Baton Rouge are abundant—portions of the events were captured on video and are on the internet for all to see—and confused. But a few things are clear:

  • Arguing with a police officer is not a capital offense.
  • Refusing to cooperate with the police is not a capital offense.
  • Running from the police is not a capital offense.
  • Serving as a police officer is a dangerous stressful job.
  • If it comes down to your life or a police officer’s, the police will opt for yours.
  • Police are rarely indicted, let alone convicted, for the deaths of civilians who in reality posed no threat and who committed no crime.
  • Black or white, your interactions with the police are much more likely to be peaceful and respectful than violent.
  • If you’re black, your interactions with the police are more likely to end badly than if you’re white.
  • Take away the police, and violence goes up, not down.

Violence in America’s cities: Police aren’t the problem

Some of these facts are self-evident; others are backed by statistics. And in the chaos and outrage surrounding a shooting, none of them really matters.

What does matter? Black lives matter.

The question ignored by that facile slogan is, do black lives matter more, or do black lives matter too?

People who retort, “all lives matter” ignore a reality for black Americans: If all lives matter, why do black lives seem to matter less? Why is a white man with an openly carried weapon more likely to be viewed as a defender of the Second Amendment, while a black man carrying that weapon is more likely to be viewed as a threat? Why are a disproportionate number of police shooting victims black?

In 2015, 965 people were fatally shot by police. According to the Washington Post, shootings of unarmed black men—the shootings that have drawn the heaviest criticism and sparked protests—account for only 4 percent of the total. However, while black men are only 6 percent of the population, they were 40 percent of the unarmed men shot by police.

Most people who were killed by the police were either armed, mentally unbalanced, or in the process of resisting arrest, including running from the police. But not all of them presented threatening behavior when they were killed, and of those, 60 percent were black.

That should be an outrage to anyone who thinks that all lives matter. All lives do not matter, not equally.

The Twitter eruption of jubilation after 12 police were shot in Dallas during a BlackLivesMatter rally is further evidence that not all lives matter, not equally. People who object to the “black lives matter” slogan often hear that extra word, “more.” The shooters in Dallas heard and believed it.

Black lives don’t matter more, but they do matter, too. That means that police lives matter, too, just as black lives matter. Black Americans may feel justifiable fury with the police and with the American justice system, but those who are celebrating “pigs in a blanket” have joined the ranks of those who think that if all lives matter, some matter a whole lot less.

America remains a generally safe place. A thousand police shootings in a population of 330 million is only a large number in comparison with Europe, not absolutely large. Forty unarmed black men killed from a population of almost 20 million does not represent a war on black men. The rising violence in cities like Baltimore that have seen declining police presence says that black mothers have something much bigger to worry about when their sons leave home than that they’ll run into the police: Their sons might not encounter any police at all.

But the problem of shootings remains. When a shooting happens in your community and in your family, those statistics matter even less than police lives or black lives. And in dealing with the problem, the ball is firmly in the police court.

The statistics above are approximate; there is no central clearing house for statistics on police shootings. The justice department doesn’t require that they be collected, and police departments report them according to their own criteria.

It’s impossible to diagnose a social problem without statistics. Social media amplify every incident of violence, transforming the problem into a full-scale war. The justice department should require that all police shootings be reported, and maintain a database with complete information about those shootings.

Re-evaluating when police should use force

Police departments should be required maintain data on individual officers: Which officers have the most complaints filed against them? Most police officers are dedicated professionals; some departments have discovered that the vast majority of suits against them are due to the actions of a tiny minority of officers. But most departments don’t maintain those statistics.

Judgments against the police should come out of the police budget, not general city funds. That would impress on the police the importance of stopping suits before they’re filed, weeding out costly officers and improving training.

Simple reforms that make costs of police misbehavior clear and impose them on people and departments responsible for preventing police misbehavior would be far more effective than any number of slogans. Rather than trying to change hearts and minds—a project for generations—we would do better to change costs and benefits, a project for the here and now.

We need the police, and we need to trust and respect them. In return, they have to be held to high standards, their adherence to those standards backed up by cold, hard data. When they fail, their failures must be openly and honestly addressed. Their training has to instill in them respect for the public, even though they are forced to deal with the worst, most debased elements of that public every day.

This can be managed by straightforward, relatively simple reforms. All that we lack is the political will to do more than spout slogans and join marches.

All lives matter equally, or none matter at all. Dallas, Minnesota, Orlando and any other act of violence you care to name represents a failure to believe that all lives matter. But they do. And no matter who you are, your life matters, too.


Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.