On August 9, 2014, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man. For the following four hours, Michael Brown’s body was left bleeding into the asphalt of Canfield Drive. For much of the preceding decade, Ferguson’s police department had subjected its black community to routine harassment and discrimination. Outraged citizens filled the streets. Soon, police in military vehicles did too. Then tear gas. And then cable-news cameras.
It’s been nearly two years since the Ferguson protests turned fatal police shootings into a subject of national concern. This week, the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile put American policing back into the media spotlight. Their stories have led many to note all of the things that haven’t changed about policing and criminal justice in the United States over the past 23 months.
Here’s a partial (and not entirely hopeful) list of what has changed.
Police are shooting more people to death.
There is no comprehensive federal data on the number of Americans killed by police officers each year. Since Ferguson, several media organizations have attempted to fill that void. Their respective counts vary widely. The crowdsourced effort Killed by Police has recorded 607 fatal encounters since the beginning of this year, while The Guardian puts that figure at 566. But as FiveThirtyEight notes, all of the most prominent trackers show the rate of police killings holding steady — or increasing — over the past two years.
The Washinton Post’s database on fatal police shootings recently earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize (unlike other trackers, the Post only documents fatal shootings). Through the first six months of 2015, the Post recorded 465 fatal police shootings; in the first six months of this year, the paper has documented 491.
Blacks continued to be shot at 2.5 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 … As was the case in 2015, in most fatal shootings by police this year, officers were confronted by subjects armed with guns. In half of such cases, those persons fired at police, prompting officers to fire their own guns to defend themselves or to protect bystanders.
Notably, black Americans killed by police are less likely than whites to have been armed at the time of their deaths.
As FiveThirtyEight notes, it’s possible that the reported increase in fatal police encounters is illusory: While the Post is careful to maintain a consistent methodology, the paper relies in part on local media accounts to maintain its tally. It’s possible that media organizations across the country are simply keeping better track of police killings than they once did. Nonetheless, it’s safe to say that there has been no dramatic decrease in fatal police encounters, and that there is evidence that such encounters have actually been more prevalent.
More police are wearing body cameras.
Over the first six months of 2015, 76 police shootings were captured on video, according to the Post’s data set. This year, that figure is 105. That jump was driven by the increased use of body cameras by police departments across the country. At this point in 2015, such cameras captured 34 shootings — this year, they’ve recorded 63.
In 2013, a survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum found that only 25 percent of American police departments outfitted their officers with body cameras. This year, roughly one-third of the nation’s 18,000 police departments have adopted them, according to Time. That fraction is expected to increase significantly in the coming years. A survey conducted this January by the Major Cities Chiefs Association found 95 percent of police departments expressing a commitment to implementing body cameras in the near future.
Cops are being prosecuted for fatal shootings more frequently.
Per the Post:
In the past 18 months, murder and manslaughter charges brought against officers in fatal shootings have tripled, while the presence of video evidence in these cases has doubled, a Post analysis shows.
From 2005 to 2014, 47 officers were criminally charged in fatal shootings, with 15 of those cases involving video evidence.
In 2015, 18 officers were criminally charged, with 10 of the cases involving video. And, so far this year, seven officers have been criminally charged, with five involving video evidence.
But, as the recent trials of officers involved in the death of 25-year-old Baltimore resident Freddie Gray have illustrated, convictions in these cases remain rare.
Public confidence in police wavered, then recovered.
The year after Michael Brown’s death, America’s confidence in its police hit historic lows. In 2015, Gallup found only 52 percent of Americans expressing either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in police, down 5 points from the historic average. The last time that figure had dropped so low was 1993, the year after the officers involved in the Rodney King beating were acquitted.
White Americans have become more likely to say their country needs to “make changes to give blacks equal rights with whites.”
In 2014, 39 percent of white Americans expressed that sentiment to Pew Research — in 2015, 53 percent did. The latter figure held steady in 2016.
A 2015 CBS–New York Times poll found that the percentage of white Americans who believe black people have an “equal chance” of “getting ahead in today’s society” dropped 10 points in one year, down to a mere 51 percent.
Public opinion among African-Americans charted a similar course. In 2014, 79 percent of black people said more changes were required to achieve racial equality. This year, 88 percent said the same.
More police departments have adopted training programs in implicit bias, deescalation, and communicating with the mentally ill.
One of the central recommendations of the White House’s 2015 task force on “21st-century policing” was to encourage America’s police departments to implement training programs on “implicit bias,” or the unconscious prejudices that inform human behavior. These courses are designed to help officers recognize their biases and develop strategies for combating them. Programs have since been adopted by police departments in New Orleans, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Seattle, among many others.
Many police departments have also shifted their training paradigms away from an emphasis on the use of force and toward strategies for deescalating encounters, particularly with mentally ill subjects.
The national crime rate has increased very slightly.
Some police chiefs — and many conservative news outlets — are certain that heightened skepticism and video monitoring of cops have been detrimental to the efficacy of American law enforcement. A “Ferguson effect” has, in their telling, put American police on the defensive, clearing the way for a massive spike in violent crime. The FBI’s preliminary 2015 data indicated a 1.7 percent increase in violent crime, including a 6.2 percent spike in the murder rate. A recent report from the Major Cities Chiefs Association suggests that the rate of violent crime increased slightly over the first quarter of 2016.
All of these data points are preliminary and subject to change. There’s also little compelling evidence of a direct relationship between the fallout from Ferguson and the documented increase in violent crime. What’s more, the time horizon measured is very small and, thus, the increase could prove to be aberrant. Over the past 25 years, the rate of violent crime in the United States has plummeted, and, even after 2015’s slight increase, the rate remains near historic lows.
As for the immediate dangers confronting American police officers themselves, the Post documents a slight increase in the number of police officers shot and killed over the first six months of this year. Prior to the atrocity committed in Dallas Thursday night, the Post reported that 20 police officers had been killed in the line of duty in 2016, compared to 16 at this point in 2015. All of these deaths matter, and none are acceptable. But both figures represent a minuscule fraction of the total police force. A police officer’s risk of dying on the job is significantly lower than that of logging workers, fishers, aircraft pilots, steel workers, power-line installers, roofers, truck drivers, farmers, construction laborers, and many, many others.
The Black Lives Matter movement put criminal-justice reform on the national political agenda.
The American political system is not designed to facilitate swift and sweeping legislative changes. This is especially true for changes requested by African-Americans and left-wing activists. Nonetheless, such sweeping changes have, on occasion, found their way through.
Over the past two years, the Black Lives Matter movement has not transformed the American criminal-justice system. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t made progress toward that end. The various black activist movements that were born in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal — and that expanded drastically in the wake of the Ferguson protests — have already changed the politics of policing and incarceration in America.
In 2016, the Democratic presidential nominee has vowed to end prison privatization, reduce mandatory minimum sentencing, create national guidelines for the use of force by police, and “end the era of mass incarceration.” It’s true that nothing in Hillary Clinton’s platform (nor in the platform of Bernie Sanders) would actually achieve that last ambition. But the fact that it is now one of the Democratic Party’s official ambitions reflects a sea change in America’s criminal-justice politics.
Currently, a (deeply flawed) criminal-justice-reform bill has garnered bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate. States across the country have continued to liberalize sentencing laws and promote alternatives to incarceration. In New York City, police have drastically reduced the use of “stop-and-frisk.” Following the uproar over the killing of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, voters ousted the State’s Attorney who took more than a year to charge the officer involved, despite video evidence that clearly established probable cause for the cop’s prosecution. Across the country, activists have imposed political costs on leaders who aid and abet discriminatory policing and prosecutions. In 2016, it is more difficult to maintain structural racism than it was two years ago.
Of course, it is still not nearly hard enough.