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Relations between minorities and law enforcement in this country have never been ideal.  However, since the 2014 police shooting in Ferguson Missouri, tensions have risen markedly.  Since that time shootings specifically, and police use of force in general, seem to be the sole benchmark by which the relationships are measured. These incidents are seemingly now judged to be either entirely justified, or not, based solely on the leanings of the individual rather than a review of the circumstances.  The reality is that in most situations a single point of view is rarely entirely right or entirely wrong.

The shooting of Micheal Brown resulted in protests that were more likely based on previous tensions between the community and law enforcement.  Nonetheless, the protests.  That, in turn, has directed subsequent conversation and debate on similar specific incidents.  This isn’t to say that transparent reviews should not occur, but rather that a singular focus detracts from the more important discussion.  Such a focus causes blanket condemnation by a section of the community which results in a blanket defense by law enforcement when in fact their is likely validity to both sides. Unknown-3

Following the Ferguson shooting.  Groups such as Black Lives Matter began to question all police shootings and concluded without substantiation that the majority involved minorities.  Subsequently some members of law enforcement automatically claimed each incident was justified and argued that in fact whites made up the majority of such shootings.  As to justification generalizations are difficult and each situation must be transparently adjudicated on its own circumstances.  As for the racial generalizations the more accurate conclusion seems to fall between the claims of both sides.

According to the Washington Post, there were 963 fatal police shootings in the United States in 2016, of which 25% were African American, and 17% were Latino.  Of the 987 fatal shootings in 2017, 23% were African American, and 18% Latino.  The claim that the majority of police shootings involve minorities is not clearly supported by these figures.  Conversely, law enforcements defense generalizes that the entire percentage of non African American/Latino incidents automatically involve Whites.  And the fact remains that a more in depth look into the figures would obviously show the inclusion of additional groups (Asians, Pacific Islanders, etc.).  Such a review, though, would likely show a more balanced or broader distribution of the numbers that realistically would not support the accusations of one side nor the defense by the other.

As stated earlier by focusing strictly on the shootings, and generalizing the numbers accordingly, the arguments of both sides become diluted and ignore the underlying problems.  The book “The War on Cops” (Heather McDonald) attempts to address the issue by focussing on, among other things, most African American homicides are the result of  “black on black” crime.  While this is true it again uses raw statistical data to divert attention from the main issue.  similar books from the opposing point of view manipulate the data for there purposes as well.  But narratives addressing the deeper concerns can also be found.

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In the book “Ghettocide” author Jill Leovy imbedded herself with detectives from LAPD Homicide in South Central Los Angeles.  What emerges is a picture that at least attempts to look at the root problems.  From the community standpoint residents tend to agree that the concept of Black lives matter but distrust the movement and also agree with the point about black on black crime.  But there concern is that the notion of black on black crime prevents them from getting the very attention that they deserve.  In other words because “the community is attacking there own,” police tend to show less concern.  By focussing entirely on specific police shootings and uses of force, movements like Black lives matter, steer public awareness from the basic problem of communication and trust between the community and police.  Similarly, the detectives acknowledge that law enforcements defensiveness of these same incidents prevents the same conversation from there end.  What ends up happening is that neither side can literally “see the forest for the trees.”

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It is this lack of vision that increases the distrust between both sides.  Both sides acknowledge that solutions cannot easily be put into place or even be easily identified.  But both sides also agree that the rhetoric is presented in the headlines makes it more difficult to have the basic conversation.  A similar point can be found in the Netflix documentary series “Flint Town.”   While that series focuses mainly on the law enforcement perspective (an underlying staffing shortages), the basic issue of distrust between the community and police remains the same.

In reality, non of this is new nor can these concerns be tagged to specific time periods. In Southern California the Watts riots of 1965 and the Rodney King riots of 1992 were nearly 30 years apart.  Another 22 years passed until the riots in Ferguson.  All three were sparked by specific incidents yet rooted in more significant underlying problems.  The same could be said for other disturbances across the country at other times.

None of this suggests that larger conversations aren’t being held or that the deeper issues are being ignored.  Nor does it suggest that statistical information in this case “shooting data” is not a valuable tool in having these discussions.  The point instead is to show that a single focus without including a broader conversation can damage or destroy the argument that a particular side is trying to make.  As a result of that damage the deeper more crucial conversations become sidetracked, if they are even allowed to take place at all. Most arguments, particularly  social ones, are subjective and therefore subject to interpretation.  By using selective data to state a position as fact inevitably weakens the argument that someone is making.  Statistics are often a necessary and invaluable tool but in today’s world of social media and sound bites are too easily manipulated to suit ones purpose.  It is becoming increasingly important that caution be used so that people are given a larger picture (on both sides) so that they can form there opinion.

 

Annotated Bibliography

“Fatal Force Data Base” The Washington Post. The Washington Post. 2016. Web. March 10, 2018: The Washington post force reports of 2016 and 2017 examine fatal police force from a statistical bases.  Racial comparisons also include percentages of total population. No examinations are made regarding justification.

“Fatal Force Data Base” The Washington Post. The Washington Post. 2017. Web. March 10, 2018: Same as above reference using updated information from a different year.

Leovy, Jill “Ghetto Side: A True Story of Murder in America” New York Times. 2015. Print: This examines the racial divide between law enforcement and the community in South Central Los Angeles.  Anecdotal conclusions are drawn based on extensive time spent with both community members and homicide detectives.

McDonald, Heather “The War on Cops: how the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe” New York Times. 2017. Print:  “The War on Cops” largely uses raw data to argue that law enforcement has limited responsibility with regard to current social divides.

Flint Town. Dir. Zackary Canepari, Jessica Dimmock, and Drea Cooper. Netflix 2018. Film: “Flint Town” looks at the community of Flint Michigan subsequent to the 2015/2016 water crisis.  It closely follows the reduction of law enforcement resources and to what extent that reduction is or is not responsible for underlying tensions.