We are still reeling from the fatal shootings by police of African-American men last week — followed by the deadly revenge attack on Dallas police who, ironically, were protecting the rights of activists to protest police treatment of minorities.
Just as television brought the Vietnam War into America’s living rooms decades ago, last week’s deadly shootings were transmitted to the world in real time by the phones of people on the scene. And much as nightly television coverage helped galvanize the anti-war movement, videos of the shooting of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota have given those events a chilling immediacy.
Has there actually been an increase in fatal police shootings? Or are we just hearing more about them? According to reports, the numbers are going up. The Washington Post found that such fatalities are up 6 percent in the first six months of 2016 compared with the same period last year. It reported that “fatal encounters are strikingly similar to last year’s shootings: Blacks continued to be shot at two-and-a-half times the rate of whites. About half of those killed were white, and about half were minorities. Less than 10 percent of all those killed were unarmed. One-quarter were mentally ill.”
These statistics are, unquestionably, troubling. But they don’t paint the picture of a police system focused on depriving minorities of their civil rights. They indicate, instead, that police activity seems to rely increasingly on the use of deadly force with disastrous results.
In the midst of his shock over the horrific loss of lives in his city, Dallas police chief David Brown summed up the crisis: “We’re hurting,” he said. “This must stop, this divisiveness between our police and our citizens.” But the question is, how?
Retraining of officers will be slow —there are 18,000 police forces in the nation. And part of the tragedy of the Dallas shooting is that the city is considered a leader in improving relations between its police and the African-American community.
If there is a national will to change, it will only come through mutual respect, honesty and fairness in the administration of justice, a commitment to dialogue and continued calls for nonviolence, patience and restraint by community leaders. It will take a concerted effort by the police, as well as significant leadership in minority communities, along with a commitment by the nation to stand behind the police when they do the job right and to hold them accountable when they don’t.
While we hope that greater coverage of the problem will help and we support efforts to effect meaningful attitudinal and enforcement change, we worry that the public’s attention span may be too short to sustain the slow work of improving our society. Nonetheless, we have no choice but to try.