When officers use force, we should demand answers

In 2011, according to data collected, police officers in the United States shot 1,146 people, killing 607. The stun gun Taser device, supposedly a non-lethal law enforcement weapon, is meant to incapacitate citizens without causing great harm. However, in the period between 2001 and 2012, Taser devices used by law enforcement across America claimed the lives of 500 people. The real number of casualties is actually much greater.

Through the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the U.S. Congress mandated the Attorney General to collect data on the excessive force by police and to publish an annual report on the data. However, a study of the years 1976 to 1998 found that data committed by police officers in the United States do not exist.

Some cities did not provide data at all, but the results, such as they were, showed that the rates of deadly force are all over the lot. There are two figures Americans don’t have: the precise number of people killed by the police and the number of times police use excessive force. No comprehensive accounting for all of the nation’s 17,000 police departments exists.

This is, of course, disturbing news, but what is not news and even more disturbing is that no one even seems interested in keeping track of how many unarmed people were killed by police officers in the same year.

According to reports from the Maine Attorney General’s Office, 42 percent of people shot by police since 2000 — and 58 percent of those who died from their injuries — had mental health problems. In many cases, the officers knew that the subjects were disturbed, and they were dead in a matter of moments. The investigation noted cutbacks in mental health services nationwide, along with the return of veterans from war, concern experts as exacerbating conditions for more deadly police encounters.

The study found a lack of police training in crisis intervention and a lack of oversight and accountability fuels a system that justifies police use of deadly force.

Within the limits set by the U.S. Supreme Court in Tennessee v. Garner, authority to use deadly force in the line of duty is granted by state law to state and local law enforcement agencies. Individual agencies set policies and procedures regarding when and how to use deadly force. When deadly force is used within the prescribed manner, the killing is deemed a justifiable homicide. Some law enforcement agencies routinely investigate all uses of deadly force while others investigate only cases involving extenuating circumstances. Other causes of death to suspects include accidents and police brutality.

It is perhaps not surprising that more than 95 percent of all police involved shootings were ruled administratively and legally justified. A handful of cases led to wrongful death lawsuits. Even fewer will result in the criminal prosecution of officers. Critics of the system have called for the establishment of completely independent investigative agencies in cases of police involved shootings.

As a stark reminder that not every country is as gun crazy as the U.S., according to Germany’s Der Spiegel, German police shot only 85 bullets in all of 2011. Most of those shots weren’t even aimed at anyone — 49 warning shots, 36 shots on suspects, 15 persons were injured and 6 were killed.

The 2011 population of Germany was approximately 81.6 million.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau estimate, the 2011 population of the U.S. was more than 310.5 million. Therefore, if the U.S. police were to match the rate of bullets fired by the German police, all police officers in the U.S. would have only fired a grand total of less than 350 bullets in 2011.

In my opinion, any officer who shoots, uses a Taser or otherwise takes action which results in death or injury to a citizen or is accused of brutality, should immediately be assigned administrative duties pending an investigation by a grand jury.

Earl L. Jackson Jr. resides in Charles Town

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