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EDITORIAL: Police shootings 'an American issue'
Twice this week, Americans again witnessed black men dying at the hands of police officers — the latest in a string of similar deaths captured on video.
In one case, a Minnesota driver stopped for a broken taillight was reportedly reaching for his wallet when he was shot Wednesday. Philando Castile's fiancée livestreamed the immediate aftermath from the passenger seat.
In the other, a man selling CDs in front of a Louisiana convenience store was killed Tuesday by police officers responding to a report of a man brandishing a gun. Cell phone video shows Alton Sterling on the ground, with two officers on top of him, when he was shot.
Both deaths are under investigation, and more details will almost certainly emerge. But reaction to the videos was immediate and visceral.
Would the outcome have been the same if the men were white?
In Castile’s case, “I don’t think it would have,” said Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, who added he was “appalled” by the killing.
We share Dayton’s sense that something is wrong with policing — not just in the North Star State but across the country.
“When incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our citizenry that feels as if, because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same, and that hurts, and that should trouble all of us,” President Obama later said in a statement. “This is not just a black issue, not just a Hispanic issue. This is an American issue that we all should care about.”
National statistics on police shootings by race are notoriously flawed because no mandatory reporting is required.
However, The Washington Post last year began building its own database and found this: Of the 965 people killed by police officers in 2015, a majority of the victims "had attacked someone with a weapon or brandished a gun, (and) the person who was shot was white.”
"But a hugely disproportionate number — 3 in 5 — of those killed after exhibiting less threatening behavior were black or Hispanic," The Post reports.
When no weapon is involved, the statistics are more alarming.
"Although black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police" in 2015, according to the newspaper.
With every new video that surfaces, it becomes clearer police reform is needed, from better training to more diversity in the ranks of officers, to rebuilding trust between officers and the communities they police.
Trust is key, we believe. These incidents involve a very small fraction of police officers in this country, but they reflect on the vast majority of their brothers and sisters in blue. When the public sees videos like those that circulated last week they see the uniform, the badge and the gun.
We commend the police department in York City — where tensions between officers and minorities flared with the 1969 race riot murders and again some 30 years later when the suspects finally faced trial — for taking an important step toward building trust.
The department earlier this year became the first in the county to equip its officers with body cameras. Studies have shown use of the cameras not only remove the “he said, she said” aspect of police/public interactions, but also lead to better behavior by both officers and citizens.
The body camera pilot program is expected to be expanded to the entire force this summer.
York City Police Chief Wes Kahley also joined other chiefs at an NAACP-sponsored public roundtable on improving police-community relations, and the city has crafted a plan to diversify its approximately 100-officer force.
These are the types of steps that will reduce deadly encounters between officers and minorities, we believe.
It’s also important for officers to condemn unjustified violence against people of color, just as we all must denounce the random murder of Dallas police officers, apparently committed in retaliation for Castile’s and Sterling’s deaths.
Nothing can justify that carnage.
“Responding to violence with violence is not the answer,” Sterling’s family said in a statement after the attack on law enforcement.
“We wholeheartedly reject the reprehensible acts of violence that were perpetrated against members of the Dallas Police Department,” the statement reads. “Our hearts break for the families of the officers who were lost as they protected protesters and residents alike during a rally.”
We pray the country takes the words of this grieving family to heart.