In the United States, unnecessary deaths of civilians at the hands of the police are commonplace. Police violence claimed 1,126 lives in 2015. The Guardian tallies 136 African-Americans victims of fatal police encounters so far in 2016. Whereas deadly force against actual deadly threats is a necessary evil, the experiences of police in the United Kingdom teach us that the police bullets used to counter knives, blunt objects, cars, and people subdued or running away are generally unnecessary.
Given that questionable police killings – even those caught on video – have become painfully routine in the USA, why did the recent killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota cause an uproar? Why did these deaths in particular drive a young man into a homicidal rage that killed five police officers in Dallas, Texas?
As a sociological observer of America’s problem of unchecked, racist police violence for over two decades, I can surmise why these two shootings, which occurred on consecutive days, have evoked such an intense reaction. First, videos were released very soon after each incident, and they offer unusually clear (and chilling) views of the events. The Sterling video shows a man who has apparently been subdued by two officers being shot numerous times at close range. The Castile video shows the heart-wrenching aftermath of a senseless police shooting – a blood-drenched man gasping for his last breaths and an innocent woman and her four-year old daughter slowly grasping the unthinkable.
Second, in part because of these videos, the victims and their families engender more sympathy than most. Most victims, including Mario Woods, Gilbert Flores, Jerame Reid, Cedric Chatman, and Jason Harrison, all of whose unwarranted killings were caught on film, draw less attention, because their threatening behavior or marginal status makes it easy to blame or ignore them. It is much harder to marginalize and blame Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. They were devoted family men and respectable citizens whose reported behavior toward law enforcement was a minor threat at the worst and completely normal, at best. Many law-abiding African-Americans are deeply disturbed and scared by the idea that carrying out their daily routine means being one minor misstep away from a gruesome death at the hands of those sworn to protect them.
The third reason for the outrage is that these deaths come on the heels of the acquittals of several Baltimore officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray. The Freddie Gray case illustrates that police officers who kill people are extremely unlikely to be convicted on serious charges, regardless of the abhorrence of their conduct. If we conservatively assume that there were 9,000 fatal police shootings between 2005 and 2014, only about 0.6 per cent are criminally charged and 0.1 per cent are convicted. People are angry, because the officers who killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile will almost certainly escape serious consequences, and they are protesting because doing so is likely the only way that charges against these officers are plausible.
Finally, Americans are in the middle a national debate about enacting some basic limits on who can purchase which types of guns. Progress at the national level is almost non-existent because ardent defenders of gun rights are concerned such reforms will open the door to restrictions on their ability to carry guns for self-protection or for slowing the spread of tyranny. These gun control opponents, of course, fully expect law enforcement to respect their “right to carry.” Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were not presumed to possess these rights. Guns near their darker-hued bodies presented deadly threats even before they were visible to the police. Yet, the white conservative voices defending these men’s right to arm themselves, or even to exist at all, were conspicuously silent. This double standard on the part of the police and gun rights advocates is another source of recent outrage.
Where will this outrage lead? A few days ago, I was optimistic that police targeting and gross mistreatment of two respected, gun-owning members of their communities would expand the multi-racial coalition calling for more humane and accountable policing. Instead, unnecessary bloodshed has provoked more unnecessary bloodshed. The dominant conversation will now likely shift from how to prevent police racism and violence to how to stop the nefarious “war on police.” It may take another egregious wrongful shooting before the conversation returns to constructive reforms. In the United States, we do not need to ask whether this will happen; only how soon.
Paul Hirschfield is associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University.