Why Are Police Shootings Dominating the News?

Police shootings and other tales of alleged police abuse (e.g., Eric Garner) dominate the news these days. You can hardly open a newspaper or turn on a television set without seeing protesters, rioters and looters, along with earnest talking heads debating the issue. Why is this? Why has violence on the part of policemen become the story du jour?

One possible answer is that police violence is a terrible problem that presumably has been with us for quite a while, but is just now coming to light. Some respectable commentators support this view. Reason, for example, links to KilledByPolice.net and concludes that “more than 1,000 people have been killed by police in 2014.” KilledByPolice.net is an interesting, bare bones database that collects stories about fatal incidents involving law enforcement from a wide variety of sources.

But it isn’t really a shock that, in a country of 320 million, there are a perceptible number of fatal encounters with policemen. If you follow the links on the KilledByPolice site, it is immediately obvious that in the overwhelming majority of cases, no possible blame can be attached to the officers in question. Most often the person they shoot is a criminal, and they shoot the criminal because the criminal fired first. The second most common fatal incident is commonly referred to as “suicide by cop.” This happens often, and one can argue that better means of dealing with would-be suicides could be developed. But this is not the issue that consumes our news shows. (A digression: an astonishing number of people commit suicide by standing in front of trains. No one blames the railroads for this.)

I haven’t attempted an exhaustive analysis of the cases linked at KilledByPolice, but if you spend some time reviewing the linked stories, I think you will conclude, as I did, that the percentage of cases in which police officers could reasonably be blamed is very small–somewhere between 1 and 5 percent. So maybe there are somewhere between 10 and 50 cases a year where a serious claim could be made that improper police conduct–not just homicide, but any sort of questionable judgment–resulted in a fatality. (From what we know so far, I would say that the Freddie Gray case is probably one of them.) Is this enough to explain the current obsession with the police?

I don’t think so. To draw a simple comparison, every year something like 390 children, most of them younger than five years old, drown in swimming pools. If our news media were to take on swimming pool safety as a cause, and give every one of these drownings–more than one per day–front page, above the fold coverage, and if our television talking heads were to devote a large portion of their time to debating swimming pool safety and the ins and outs of each individual drowning, many people would no doubt be convinced that we are living in the midst of a swimming pool crisis. That crisis would be an order of magnitude greater than the police abuse scandal, and a large majority of the victims would be small children, not the sketchy characters that police officers so often encounter.

But that isn’t happening. Given the comparative insignificance of the police abuse issue, quantitatively speaking, one might suspect that its current dominance of public discourse fits someone’s agenda.

Which, of course, it does. The police abuse story, which began in a nascent form with Trayvon Martin and continued, more fully developed, with Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, is part of the Democratic Party’s effort to divide America along racial lines, in expectation of political gain. Leftists say “Black lives matter,” as though there were some people who say they don’t. Rarely has paranoia been more ruthlessly, or more dishonestly, promoted.

But a more specific left-wing agenda may also be in play. Al Sharpton–as buffoonish as Harry Reid and as corrupt as Hillary Clinton, with more blood on his hands than Democratic National Committeeman Bull Connor–is one of his party’s most authentic spokesmen. And Sharpton wants to place the nation’s police forces under federal control: “We need the Justice Department to step in and take over policing in this country.” Here he is:

When Sharpton talks about “states’ rights,” he means the Constitution. Under the Constitution, the police power is reserved to the states. The usurpation he proposes is illegal. But in the Age of Obama, what else is new? Elizabeth Foley points out that the seeds of a federal takeover of policing are already implicit in the findings of a group created by Obama’s executive order. She notes that: “State and local government can easily be coerced into adopting federal policies by dangling juicy federal funds in front of them.”

Glenn Reynolds addresses the proposed federalization of local law enforcement in his USA Today column:

To believe that a federalized approach to policing would be an improvement over the current system, you’d have to ignore an awful lot of misbehavior by federal law enforcement lately. There’s the scandal with the Secret Service and hookers just before Obama’s trip to Colombia. There’s the entirely separate scandal with the Drug Enforcement Agency and hookers (hookers paid for by Colombia drug lords, no less). There’s the fact that the Secret Service’s hooker-scandal investigator had to resign amid a scandal of his own. There’s the Secret Service’s alleged attempt to use a fraudulent warrant in an effort to search a house illegally. There are the federal agents charged with stealing Bitcoins during a criminal investigation, and, of course, the laughable inability of the entire Homeland Security apparatus to keep a postal worker’s gyrocopter away from the Capitol despite advance notice.

The FBI, meanwhile, used bogus forensic evidence to convict thousands based on the questionable, if not outright dishonest, say-so of its forensic lab, and, most significantly, didn’t admit the problem for years, letting many potentially innocent people rot in jail. In one case, a man, Santae Tribble, spent 28 years in prison after FBI analysts said that a single hair found at a crime scene was one of his, when in fact it came from a dog.

If that sounds incredible, follow the links at the original USA Today article.

The third problem with unifying police authority under a national umbrella is that it’s much more prone to political abuse by the party in power. As we’ve seen with the IRS — which, interestingly, shows little interest in frequent White House visitor Al Sharpton’s unpaid taxes — federal bureaucrats are all too willing to serve the interests of their political masters even when doing so violates the law. Putting most law enforcement in the hands of diverse state and local authorities helps limit the potential for abuse. Putting everything under federal control, on the other hand, magnifies it.

The fourth problem with a federal takeover of the states’ police powers is that it is unconstitutional. Nevertheless, that seems to be the object toward which the current hysteria is directed.