A new way to die: Legal intervention

GLENN ELLIS | 6/27/2017, 10:43 a.m.
We are forced to accept a new category is listed among the leading causes of death in America: legal intervention.
Tia Williams and daughter Aissa create a street display outside the Minnesota governor's official residence in St. Paul, Minnesota, as people gathered, July 7, 2016, to protest the shooting death of Philando Castile. Richard Tsong-Taatarii of Star Tribune

Strategies for Well-Being

We are forced to accept a new category is listed among the leading causes of death in America: legal intervention.

Less than 48 hours after the deadly shooting of Alton Sterling by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Philando Castile was shot by a police officer in Minnesota, the aftermath of which was captured in a Facebook Live video by Castile’s girlfriend. The police officer charged in Castile’s death was found not guilty.

With over 1,000 police shootings each year in the U.S., the latest research from 2005-2015 found that only 80 officers were arrested for fatal on-duty shootings, with only 28 convicted.

Sterling and Castile are among the latest victims in the ongoing epidemic of African Americans killed by police officers. Catching the acts on harrowing video has been a growing trend in recent years due to technological advances. Just about every mobile phone has a camera. But the video evidence rarely leads to convictions.

There have been plenty of other high-profile deaths at the hands of police that haven’t been caught on video, including Sean Bell, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Brendon Glenn, Dontrae Hamilton, Alex Nieto, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, Jamar Clark, Gregory Gunn and Akai Gurley. Not to mention Sandra Bland.

The stream of names of those who have been killed at the hands of the police seems endless, and one is overwhelmed trying to keep up with all the names. But somewhere, we must remember that these are lives of human beings.

A death from legal intervention is a death in which a person is killed by a police officer or other peace officer (a person with specified legal authority to use deadly force), including military police, acting in the line of duty. This category excludes legal executions.

U.S. police killed or injured an estimated 55, 400 people during legal stop and search incidents and arrests in 2012, reveals research published online in the journal Injury Prevention.

The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that between 2003 and 2009, there were more than 2,900 arrest-related deaths involving law enforcement. Averaged over seven years, that’s about 420 deaths a year. While BJS does not provide the annual number of arrest-related deaths by race or ethnicity, a rough calculation based on its data shows that Black people were about four times as likely to die in custody or while being arrested than Whites.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics System offers another view into officers’ use of deadly force. In 2011, the CDC counted 460 people who died by “legal intervention” involving a firearm discharge. In theory, this includes any death caused by a law enforcement or state agent (it does not include legal executions).

The CDC’s cause-of-death data, based on death certificates collected at the state level, also reveals a profound racial disparity among the victims of police shootings. Between 1968 and 2011, Black people were between two to eight times more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than Whites. Annually, over those 40 years, a Black person was on average 4.2 times as likely to get shot and killed by a cop than a White person. The CDC’s database of emergency room records also shows similar racial disparities among those injured by police.