Ron Hosko: The truth about fatal shootings by police

As it has for the last three years, the Washington Post dedicated a team of data collectors and writers to focus on the issue of fatal shootings by police, producing a long story earlier this month headlined: “Nationwide, police shot and killed nearly 1,000 people in 2017.” The exact number of such deaths the Post counted was 987.

But rather than supplying any balance or meaningful context to an important topic, the flawed story takes the reader just where discerning people might expect – to the discredited myth that racist police are targeting and gunning down unarmed black men and boys for no reason other than the color of their skin.

By the third paragraph, the Post moves its focus to race, stating: “While many of the year-to-year patterns remain consistent, the number of unarmed black males killed in 2017 declined from two years ago. Last year, police killed 19, a figure tracking closely with the 17 killed in 2016. In 2015, police shot and killed 36 unarmed black males.”

Wait a minute. Note that while the issue of unarmed black males being shot by police drew enormous news coverage last year – enough to make the average person think there was a massive wave of such shootings – according to the Post’s own tally only 2 percent of those who died as a result of police shootings were unarmed black men and boys.

Yet four paragraphs later, the Post story blows the poisonous dog-whistle of race – even though 98 percent of people shot by police last year were not unarmed black males.

The Post story states: “National scrutiny of shootings by police began after an unarmed black teenager from a suburb of St. Louis was fatally shot by a white police officer in August 2014. The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown sparked widespread protests, prompted a White House commission to call for reforms, galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement and led many police agencies across the nation to examine their use of deadly force.”

What the Post states, as far as it goes, is true. But writers of the Post article know – or certainly should know by now – that a Justice Department report cleared Police Officer Darren Wilson of Ferguson, Missouri of any wrongdoing for his shooting of Brown. The report states: “Not only do eyewitnesses and physical evidence corroborate Wilson’s account, but there is no credible evidence to disprove Wilson’s perception that Brown posed a threat to Wilson as Brown advanced toward him.”

Simply stated, Michael Brown was no martyr for “police brutality.” Brown was a thug and a thief. He stole a pack of $50 cigarillos from a convenience store, menaced the shopkeeper and shoved him out of the way. Brown then walked a few blocks and attacked Wilson, a uniformed police officer sitting in his marked police SUV, and tried to grab Wilson’s gun.

Do that in any city in the world – no matter what your race or ethnicity – and you put yourself in immediate risk of deadly force being used against you. Police are not required to allow anyone to grab their guns and kill them. 

And, getting back to the Post article, it appears as though somewhere near three-quarters of the 987 people who were fatally shot by police last year posed a grave threat to police and others because they were armed with their own knife or a gun.

Put the Post’s numbers in perspective, because the paper chose not to do so.

According to the FBI’s “Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted” data collection, in 2016 law enforcement agencies that filed reports tallied 57,180 officers assaulted in the line of duty.

That number only represents data from 12,421 law enforcement agencies – about 70 percent of the 18,000 agencies in the country. So a more realistic estimate of assaults on police last year would be roughly 75,000.

So when you think about shooting by police, remember that each year thousands of cops are feloniously assaulted and injured by dangerous attackers. And despite the danger, and their annual face-to-face contacts with tens of millions of us, police fatally shot only 987 people last year – a tiny fraction of 1 percent of those who assaulted the cops.

What’s truly remarkable is that thousands more people weren’t killed as they assaulted police with the intent to seriously injure – or in some cases with the intent to kill – the law enforcement officers.

So the Post story should not be focused on police excess. It should be focused on the remarkable degree of restraint exercised by police.

No police officer in his or her right mind sets out to kill anyone – and no officer finds the experience enjoyable or thrilling. It is a nightmare they all want to avoid.

Certainly, police shootings must be thoroughly and fairly investigated. And in the rare cases where police are have acted unlawfully they should face prosecution.

But in the overwhelming majority of police shootings, officers are acting to protect themselves or others from the prospect of imminent death or injury. Race plays no part in the decision to reluctantly shoot when there is no other alternative.