What happened in Dallas last week was unambiguously awful – unforgivable, indefensible, tragic. There is no moral calculation that can justify the killing of five police officers in cold blood. Police officers put their lives at risk to protect communities. They go where the rest of us don’t dare. They run toward danger when the rest of us run away. On Thursday, these five officers were doing their jobs, patrolling a peaceful evening protest, when they were killed without warning. That’s heartbreaking and unfair.
But at the same time, the fact that a deranged sniper went on a shooting rampage does not mean – and should not be cynically used to suggest – that the people who were demonstrating in Dallas had no cause for protest. Americans must be able to hold those two ideas in their heads simultaneously: that the actions of 25-year-old Micah Johnson were reprehensible and that the people protesting the police shootings of African-Americans in Minnesota, Louisiana and elsewhere have legitimate grievances.
If race is the great unfinished conversation in American society, it is criminal justice – and policing in particular – that is at the cutting edge of that discussion, a subject that separates blacks from whites perhaps more than any other. Until recently, when Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Ezell Ford and others became household names, white Americans were too often oblivious to African-American fear and mistrust of law enforcement. Anger about police brutality and police shootings went unheeded.
Yet that anger is not 2 years old and did not begin when Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. It is 50 years old, 75 years old, 100 years old and more.
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Today, the subject remains raw and painful for African-Americans and, increasingly, for whites. The videos that millions of people watched last week were horrifying and depressing. Of course Americans of all races were upset watching Philando Castile bleed to death in his car after being shot by a police officer in Minnesota in front of his girlfriend and her child. Of course they were angry watching officers shoot Alton Sterling to death in Baton Rouge, La., as he lay on the ground. These graphic, violent videos, like others that have been made public in recent months and years, suggested to many viewers a casual disregard for African-American life on the part of the police. Did police really have to shoot Sterling if he was, in fact, already pinned down? Can it be true that Castile was killed while simply reaching for his wallet to produce his driver’s license, as his girlfriend says he was instructed to do?
It’s nearly impossible to tell from any single video whether a shooting was justified. To understand the nature of our national policing problem and to put it in context, what’s needed is more data, more analysis, more information. How many people are being killed by the police? How many are young men? How many are unarmed? How many are African-American? Why are they being shot? Are police officers being punished or exonerated and are those outcomes fair or dubious? We need intelligible data to determine to what degree this is a training issue or a racism epidemic or a gun-control problem or a crime problem or a trigger-happy cop problem. It is outrageous, nearly two years after Ferguson, that police agencies around the country are not uniformly required to make this information available to the federal government and the public.
Instead, the discussion has relied on informal statistics. The Washington Post, for instance, has been tracking the numbers as best it can. That newspaper reported that police shootings around the country had increased from 465 in the first six months of 2015 to 491 for the same period in 2016, and that blacks continued to be shot at 2.5 times the rate of whites (although more whites are killed in absolute numbers than blacks).
President Barack Obama, to his credit, has taken exactly the right tone. On Thursday, he noted that all fair-minded Americans should be troubled by the recent shootings by police in Minnesota and Louisiana, which he called “symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.” He explained that there was no contradiction between supporting law enforcement and recognizing its mistakes, biases and problems. Then, on Friday, he denounced the “vicious, calculated and despicable” attack on the police officers in Dallas.
The United States is at a crossroads, facing an epidemic of fear and anger, a resurgence of violence, a divided populace and another skirmish in its long, ongoing struggle with race. How will we respond? Can we come together to address the inequalities and disparities and mistrust that President Obama called to our attention, or will we ignore them at our own peril?