A Tale of Two Cities
Earlier tonight I spoke on the Senate floor about the disturbing police shootings of two more African-Americans in recent days — Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. My full remarks calling for action to stop more tragic deaths like these:
I offer a tale of two cities.
My comments are in deep and disturbed reaction to the police shootings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota. The videos of these shootings — one of an African-American father of five selling CD’s outside a convenience store and one of a beloved African-American school cafeteria supervisor stopped for a broken taillight — are shocking. And all people of good will have to ask — in the words of President Obama — “what if this happened to somebody in your family?”
The first city is the world of America’s police officers. Our law enforcement officers are heroes. While we are told in Scripture that the greatest love is to lay one’s life down for a friend, police officers risk their lives everyday not just for friends, but for people that they have never even met.
As a Mayor and Governor, I came face to face with the danger of police work and went to too many funerals for local and state law enforcement officials who gave their lives in service to their fellow citizens. In February of this year, Prince William County Police Officer Ashley Guidon was shot and killed on her first day working her beat. It’s a hard and dangerous job and we have to be grateful for those who do it.
But here’s one glimmer of hope. For a police officer, the threat of death by gun violence is being dramatically reduced even as our nation’s population continues to grow. The death of police officers by gun violence hit its peak in the early 1970’s. In 1973, 156 police officers were shot and killed. In the first decade of the 2000’s, the average had been reduced to 57 officers killed by gunfire every year. In 2014, 49 officers were killed by gunfire. In 2015, the number killed by gunfire had fallen to 42. This year, police deaths by gunfire are at the same level as 2015.
One police death by gunfire is too many. And police die in traffic accidents and by other work related causes that also need resolution. But, the experience of our nation in the last 40 years has been this — we have made our police safer from death by gunshot. We have shown that we can tackle a problem and begin to solve it. And that should give us hope that we can bring the number of police killed by gunfire down even more.
The second city is the world of people, especially young African-American males, shot by the police. In 2015, according to painstaking research undertaken by The Guardian newspaper, 1010 people were shot and killed by the police in our country. Young African-American males were five times more likely to be killed by police than white males of the same age. This data suggests that 102 unarmed African-American males were killed by police in 2015. This number was also five times the rate of unarmed whites killed by police.
How does this number compare to past years? It is nearly impossible to know. While deaths of law enforcement officers have been carefully tracked for decades, the deaths of individuals killed by the police in this country have only recently been counted. At least since the early 1990’s, there have been legal reporting requirements for such deaths, but actual data collection has been weak and it has not been until the last two years that there has been an effort, driven by journalists and citizens, to systematically collect this data. Even now, there are questions about whether current data is actually comprehensive.
How did our nation bring down the number of police killed by gunfire even as the nation grew and the number of firearms increased? Because we cared about it. Because we kept records and resolved to do better and police departments trained to reduce risks and society supported those efforts with budgets and emotional commitment.
How will our nation bring down the number of people, especially African-American males, especially young African-American males, especially unarmed African-American males, killed by police? Because we will decide that we must care about it. Again, in the words of President Obama, because we will decide that “this is not just a black issue, it’s an American issue.” We must decide that we will keep rigorous records, and resolve to do better, and provide better police training and support those efforts with budgets and emotional commitment.
If we have brought down the rate of police deaths by gunfire, we can bring down the rate of people killed by police. But we cannot do it unless we care and unless we act.