Over the past month, police officers in the United States have killed three unarmed black men in circumstances that raise serious human rights concerns. On July 17, Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, died after a New York Police Department officer placed him in a choke hold—a tactic that the NYPD banned in 1993—while trying to arrest him for selling black market cigarettes on a Staten Island street. The New York Medical Examiner has ruled his death a homicide.
On August 5, police fatally shot John Crawford, 22, inside a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio. Witnesses sayCrawford was holding a toy gun that was available for purchase in the store, and that police opened fire when he did not comply with an order to put it down.
Then, on August 9, police in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old due to start college two days later. Police allege that Brown assaulted an officer, but witnesses say he was 35 feet away from the police car when he was shot. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has opened an investigation into the shooting as a possible violation of federal civil rights laws.
Communities throughout the US have long voiced concerns about the use of excessive force by police, saying incidents like these disproportionately involve black men. And indeed, Garner, Crawford, and Brown join an appallingly long list of unarmed black men killed by police in the US in recent years. Some—like Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and Oscar Grant—have made national headlines and generated public protests. In Ferguson, the at-times violent unrest has continued for days. Police have used teargas and rubber bullets against protesters, and in some instances, told journalists to leave the scene.
But it’s almost impossible to get a firm handle on the full extent of the problem. As journalists and others have documented time and time again, there are no reliable nationwide figures on police use of deadly force. A federal law, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, requires the Attorney General to collect and publish data on the use of force by police and issue an annual summary. A search of the Justice Department website yielded no indication that such a summary has ever been published.
Without this data, one can’t know whether, as some claim, police abuse can be traced to a few “bad apple” officers, or is an endemic problem; and how to best go about addressing it. Implementation of the 1994 law would not solve the problem, but it would be an important step in taking measure of exactly how big it is. Meanwhile, the headlines, the funerals, and the protests continue, documenting yet another life lost.