A Response to Attorney General Lynch’s Argument Against Police Reporting Fatal Shootings

Buried in the utterly devastating headlines of a mass shooting in Oregon, the U.S. government’s committing of war crimes in bombing a hospital in Afghanistan, deaths in South Carolina from historically severe floods exaggerated by climate change and a final deal reached between negotiators for a trade pact that grants incredible protections to corporate powers and guts the middle class of jobs, is the news that rather than require police departments to report deaths caused by police, the Department of Justice is creating an open-source system wherein analysts in the Bureau of Justice Statistics will monitor the news media through crowdsourcing to track the number of deaths caused by police officers. That this development isn’t prominent in the media is quite telling about how effective this method will be in introducing more accountability into policing with lethal force.

The Guardian notes that the methods are quite similar to those employed in its own lethal-force monitoring projected, ‘The Counted’, an endeavor that lists the names of those killed by police and frequently incisive reporting and analysis of what data is available (just today ‘The Counted’ featured a report on the reporting of murders as suicides enabling officers to avoid public scrutiny). While taking in what feels to be the never-ending list of names and photos of those killed over the last year one cannot help but notice that many of the profiles have no elaborating details on the circumstances of death. A crowd-sourced archive assembled by a news agency can be forgiven for this, but that the Department of Justice wants to use methods that would lead to the same sorts of gaps in knowledge is unforgivable, particularly when the Guardian cannot threaten to cut funding if they aren’t given the information they ask for but when the Department of Justice has just this power.

For fiscal year 2015 the Department of Justice has a $3 billion budget to fund grants to police departments, $247 million of which goes to grants to fund the hiring of police officers through the COPs program, and millions more for Byrne program grants that are awarded just for waging the war on drugs (see Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, pages 73-84 for more on the Byrne grants and their function in the war on drugs against blacks). It is common practice for the Department of Justice to eliminate grants for groups that do not meet their bureaucratic requests, or to sanction those funds when conditions of use are not followed. The Department of Justice should use this power and require police departments to report fatal shootings of citizens, but Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said the government should not force police to report fatal shootings, though they should be encouraged to keep records. (Last week Director of the FBI James Comey said that the voluntary reporting system was sufficient for their reports on justified killings, but acknowledging that there has been public pressure for more information in these reports, the FBI would try to collect more information, though when asked how they ended the meeting.)

The Attorney General’s comments have been particularly disturbing in her use of that most common of political tools, a fallacious argument from a false dilemma, exhibiting the sort of callous hand-wringing that Cornel West decries as paternalistic nihilism. Implying that we face the choice of either forcing police departments to report their use of life-ending lethal force or improving community/police relations (by, one assumes, not making officers feel outside the community by acknowledging that they kill members of the community without repercussion) Lynch says that, “The statistics are important, but the real issues are: ‘what steps are we all taking to connect communities … with police and back with government?’” By arguing that records of lethal force are important but community relations are more important, Lynch implies that she doesn’t support the policy of mandatory reporting of lethal force because it is in conflict with what is more important, improving police-community relations. This is a false dilemma, as we surely can have both, and moreover, the notion is also wrong because mandatory reporting will result in the necessary accountability of police to the community that will lead to less wanton use of deadly force and thereby in time improve community/police relations from their current lowly state.

Also troubling is that this further implies that the fray of community/police relations is caused by the community’s perception of the police as informed by statistics on the use of lethal force, as the implication is that relations would be better if the community knew less about police violence and this only follows from the assumption that the community is the source of the rift. Yet that an occupied people are not to be faulted for the tensions between them and their occupiers is obvious. What is more, an occupied community will feel this ill will without the reporting of statistics, they have such feelings because of their lived experiences in a system of arbitrary justice, such that not reporting the use of lethal force hardly constitutes a method of resolving such tensions. Again, the mandatory reporting of use of lethal force introduces accountability into the system and would dissuade police officers from unjustifiably using life-ending force against members of the community, and this is a sure way to lead to improvements in community/police relations. Lynch’s false dilemma is deceitful political posturing to appear tough on crime and trusting of law enforcement by dismissing a solution to a matter of life and death as an impediment to the resolution of a system of terror that is caused by those very matters of life and death.

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