Background image: Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Viral video makes us feel too comfortable about police killings

The video below of black motorist Will Stack, who was stopped for a traffic violation in South Carolina, has gone viral with hundreds of thousands of Facebook shares. It’s not hard to understand why.

He was cooperative with the white officer who pulled him, careful not to seem threatening in any way and acknowledged ignorance of the law he was accused of breaking. He said his respect was reciprocated and he got off with a warning.

It’s the way we’d all like such an interaction to go between Americans and the people they entrust to enforce their laws.

But videos of traffic stops that go the way everybody wants and expects don’t go viral any more than videos of routine airplane landings do – not unless what everybody wants and expects is counter to the way we know, or fear, things really are.

The current events context of this video is a steady stream of police killings around the country, including a week-old video from South Carolina, of Walter Scott, another black driver, being shot in the back and killed by a white police officer who originally pulled him for a broken tail light.

Stack’s message is that people – even black people in South Carolina – who behave as he did rarely have anything to fear. It went viral because what happened to Walter Scott is what we believe happens far too often and we're desperate for comforting evidence to the contrary.

Last month American police killed 111 of the nation’s 320 million people – mostly non-whites, people who were mentally ill or both. That was up 36 from the number police killed in February.

In Canada, with a population roughly one-tenth ours, police killed 14 people in all of 2014. In the United Kingdom, a country with about one-sixth our population, police killed 52 people in the entire 20th Century. In Germany, where the population is a quarter of ours, police haven’t killed anyone in two years.

It’s impossible to tell whether the rate of police killings is increasing in the United States because only a small fraction of 18,000 city, university, county, state, tribal and federal law enforcement agencies provide data on how many people they kill. That also means the number of police killings is almost certainly higher than the reported number.

The figure of 111 police killings in March above was compiled by one of several private citizens’ groups who comb through their news media reports to compile their own statistics.

Yet law enforcement agencies do provide data for the FBI’s annual crime report, and the latest (2013) shows that violence committed by Americans against each other is at the lowest rate in 40 years.

Police officers who kill people are rarely charged with a crime. Of the thousands of police killings in the United States since 2005, only 54 officers have faced charges, according to Kentucky’s Bowling Green State University. Of those, three-quarters of the police officers were white and two-thirds of the victims were black. In half of the police killings, the victim was unarmed and shot in the back.

Eighty percent of the cases involved at least one of the circumstances of the police killing in North Charleston, S.C.: the victim was shot in the back, there was video of the killing, and a cover-up was alleged or a fellow officer testified against the killer.

Eleven of the 54 officers have been convicted, 21 were acquitted or had their cases dismissed and 19 cases are still pending. The outcome of the remaining three were classified as “other.”

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© 2020 by Jody Meacham