The issue of the use of deadly force by police departments burst onto the national agenda with the tragic death on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, of Michael Brown, a young black man, at the hands of a white police officer. This tragedy sparked a national debate about whether police officers were too willing to use deadly force against minorities, particularly young black men.
Unfortunately, at the time of the Ferguson tragedy, there were no reliable national statistics on the number of police shootings each year in the U.S. Police departments had not been required to report such statistics to the FBI for use in the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report. Fortunately, shortly after the Ferguson tragedy, the Washington Post set up a special team to track and record police shootings around the nation, so we now have some hard, verifiable statistics on police shootings.
For calendar year 2017, the Post's statistics show that a total of 987 people were shot and killed by police officers. The Post's figures also show that a disproportionate number of those shot and killed by the police were black men. Twenty-two percent of those shot were black men, but black men constitute only 6 percent of the population. However, the statistics also show that the number of unarmed black men shot and killed by police was not as large as popularly believed. In calendar year 2017, 17 unarmed black men were shot and killed by police officers. That does not mean that shootings of unarmed black men are not a problem that needs to be addressed, but it is important to get a sense of the scope of the problem.
This issue of police use of deadly force has now come home here to Leavenworth. On Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, Leavenworth Police Chief Pat Kitchens announced that Officer Matthew Harrington was going to be dismissed from the Leavenworth Police Department. Harrington had shot and killed Mr. Antonio Garcia on July 11, 2017. Kitchens argued in his statement that Harrington had not followed proper procedure in his use of deadly force against Garcia.
The final outcome of this tragedy has not yet been determined. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation is still investigating the case. It has not yet released its report on the incident. When the report is released, it will be the decision of County Attorney Todd Thompson as to whether any criminal charges will be filed in this case.
There is no easy way to resolve these painful cases of police use of deadly force, but those responsible for adjudicating them need to keep in mind two somewhat contradictory principles. On one hand, police officers must be held accountable for their actions. The popular “Dirty Harry” movies are not the way it works in reality with vigilante justice. The great Protestant theologian Reinhold Neibuhr put it best when he said, “Man's capacity for good makes democracy possible, but man's inclination toward evil makes democracy necessary.”
All human beings are capable of doing evil in the right circumstances. To curb that tendency toward evil, everyone needs to be accountable for their actions.
However, while police officers have to be held accountable to the law, when they are charged with a crime, they are entitled to what every American is entitled to: due process of law. The 5th and 14th Amendments to our Constitution guarantee due process for all. In our country, there has been a disturbing tendency in recent years to try people on the internet and in the media, even to threaten civil disorder if people do not get the judicial outcome that they want. Anyone who wants to know what is wrong with this 21st century version of lynch mob law should see the famous movie “The Ox-Bow Incident.” In this movie, a lynch mob ends up murdering three innocent men.
Ernest Evans is a Leavenworth Times columnist.