By the time this article is published, it’s likely that the police will have killed another American suspect. On June 21, when I first began researching this article, the number of those killed by police in 2016 alone stood at 500. A day later, it was 502. On June 23, the number had shot to 507 (pun intended.) Added with numbers from 2015, the total is 1,653.
What are these numbers and how do they break down?
Since January 1, 2015, police officers have been involved in the killing of 1,653 Americans. In the UK, the Guardian, the traditional paper of the left, has been counting the number of police shootings in America at a project it calls The Counted.
It is essential to remember that some police shootings are justified. In many cases, police were returning fire at a person shooting at them. So, for example, among the people listed as having been killed by the police is the Orlando shooter. Very few of us would see his shooting as not justified. And in the small town in rural New York where I lived for many years, years ago, a police officer was killed after being slashed in the neck by a mentally unstable woman who had been known to the community for years for her troubling behaviours — including the self-Caesarean section that she performed on herself before walking through downtown with a bleeding abdomen. That woman was shot dead by the officer’s backup. The question is, of course, why wasn’t she in a mental health hospital getting the help that she needed?
To read through the stories of the slain is to be reminded that we expect police officers to be mental health counselors, dealing with those who are in the midst of psychotic breaks, extreme manic episodes, suicidal depressions, and who are responding to hallucinatory voices or visions. When America chose Ronald Reagan as its president, it also signaled that it was no longer willing to care for the mentally ill. Police have been paying for that decision ever since. On her show, Full Frontal, Samantha Bee documented the steps that the state of Florida — hardly known as the bastion of sane gun laws and progressive politics — has implemented in creating a new training program for police that allows them to interact with those with mental illness in such a way that recidivism in jails is way down, as is violent confrontation.
But, having acknowledged that the circumstances under which police fire at suspects can often be justified, the evidence of the number of killings by police officers under ambiguous circumstances should trouble anyone. The number of shootings of people who were shown to be unarmed was 303 people since January 1, 2015. Let me say this again: The police have killed 303 unarmed people since January 1, 2015.
In 539 days, the police have killed 1,653 people. In 539 days, the police have killed 303 unarmed people. Freddie Gray’s case is horrific and troubling and justice must be meted to his killers. But what of these other cases? How do these numbers break down along the boundaries by which we are defined within this nation?
Nothing is known about four of the six people killed by police on June 21 and June 22, so those numbers are not included. But here is a breakdown of the numbers that we do have.
Of the 303 unarmed dead:
23 were female
279 were male
1 was non-conforming
99 were black
141 were white
6 were Native American
47 were Hispanic
5 were Asian/Pacific Islander
The numbers of the unarmed dead immediately make two things clear: your chances of being killed by the police go up greatly when you are male. The chances of you being killed by the police go up greatly when you are a person of color. Those same numbers are borne out by the greater number of the 1,653 police killings; the demographics of the total dead are roughly proportional with the numbers of unarmed dead.
And, not everyone who was killed by the police were shot by guns. Of the 303 unarmed dead, 153 of them were killed by gunshots. And, because the Guardian counts every killing committed by a police officer in its tally, several of the dead are the children and wives of cops who annihilated their families before killing themselves in murder-suicides. The suicides of police officers are not included in these figures.
Some of the dead are the result of accidental traffic collisions, where police cruisers and civilian cars crash into one another. These types of accidents occur in any profession. But there are also a number of dead who died as a consequence of police pursuits, for example, pedestrians killed on sidewalks when police cars lost control, or other drivers killed by cruisers where the police officer had failed to put on lights and siren before proceeding into intersections.
It’s also interesting to note that of the total of 1,653 dead, 46 of these people died as a result of being stunned by Tasers. While Tasers are often touted as a safer alternative to guns when dealing with agitated people, the evidence is incontrovertible that Tasers are deadly weapons.
The youngest unarmed person who was killed by police was a six-year old boy. Jeremy Mardis, a six-year-old white boy was shot multiple times by police officers who were attempting to arrest his father.
The original story told by police was that Chris Few, the boy’s father, had been attempting to evade police when they wanted to arrest him for an outstanding warrant. The police alleged that they fired at Few when he came to a dead end in his car and then attempted to back over the police officers. The boy was killed in the crossfire, police said. But, after an investigation, two officers were arrested and charged with second degree murder and attempted second degree murder for the killing of Mardis and the wounding of Few. No warrant for Few had been found, and the car was not in the position that the officers had alleged that it was. The officers are still awaiting trial.
The latest person about whom we know the details of his killing was a 24-year-old Hispanic male who was killed in Shelby, North Carolina. Pedro Cruz-Amado appears to have been part of the shameful legacy of leaving those with mental health issues to cope on their own. A deputy was called to deal with reports of a “disturbed man.” When he got there, Cruz-Amado went after the deputy with a metal chair. The deputy killed him with his gun. The case is still under investigation.
In addition to Cruz-Amado, the unarmed dead in the month of June are the following five men.
Antwun Shumpert, a 37-year-old black man who was killed on June 18 in Tupelo, Mississippi. He “allegedly ran” from a traffic stop by police, and was shot dead after attacking a police officer and a police dog.
Weston Sites, a 15-year-old white man who was killed on June 7 in Orland, California. Sites died as a result of the accidental crash of a police cruiser and three other cars.
Omar Villagomoz, a 21-year old Hispanic male who died in Turlock, California. Police shot Villagomoz during a drug bust, when they allege Villagomoz ran into unmarked police cars with his own car. He was shot inside his vehicle.
Andrew Henson, a 25-year-old white male in Wagoner, Oklahoma. Henson was killed after a car chase. Henson had eluded an officer who had tried to pull him over for a traffic stop, but then attempted to run the officer off the road. He was shot dead by another officer after Henson exited his vehicle and made a “threatening gesture.”
Hope Elferdink, a 38-year-old white woman in Battle Creek, Michigan. Elferdink was murdered by her husband, an off-duty deputy, who killed Elferdink before committing suicide.
Even in the killing of these six unarmed people in June 2016, we see a cross-section of the complex issues whenever police kill the unarmed. Two of the people killed died as the result of a domestic horror or a traffic accident. But of the four other killings, one was the result of our inadequate mental health system, one was a result of our failed drug policy, and the other two killings have not been investigated enough to reveal why these men were being sought by police in the first place.
It is difficult to pick the most awful aspect of the fact that 1,653 people have been killed by police in America. The age of the youngest victim is horrible. The number of the dead who suffered from the demons of mental illness is awful. But perhaps the most sobering is this, and it reflects directly on our failed policy toward guns. In April, 2016, the Guardian ran a shock headline that the number of total homicides in Great Britain in 2015 had risen by 11 percent.
Last year, across Great Britain, a total of 573 people were the victims of homicides. 573. Out of a total population of 62 million. In 2015, the police in America killed 1146 people. That’s right. In America, the police killed exactly twice as many people as were murdered in total in Great Britain, a country that banned private ownership of handguns since the slaying of 16 schoolchildren in Dunblane, Scotland. It is difficult not to ask whether our insane gun laws not only lead to an out-of-proportion murder rate in the whole United States, but also on the number of police officers who kill civilians in the name of our common defense.