Back in August 2014, the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in the US by a police officer sparked civil unrest, leading to thousands of protesters taking to the streets.
This year there have been many fatal shootings of black American citizens, from Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and 13 year-old Tyre King. These events have once again sparked more Black Lives Matter movements and heated discussion about police accountability.
According to research by Phillip Stinson, out of the thousands of fatal police shootings that have taken place since 2005, only 77 officers have been prosecuted – and only 27 were successfully convicted. These statistics can be interpreted in two ways. Either most of the police shootings were justified, or something has gone very wrong with how the police are held accountable for their actions.
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A lot of police officers under investigation for fatally shootings when on duty resume their jobs in a different department. In one case in Miami, an investigation took so long that the officer who was involved in a fatal shooting ended up killing another man in 2013.
Internal police departments carry out investigations into officer misconduct. This is like your left hand investigating your right hand – you don’t hurt your own. Within the police force there is a desire to protect their own, and an officer will often walk free no matter how bad the misconduct is. While there isn’t hard evidence that this is why so few charges against officers are successful, the severe lack of transparency in the whole system doesn’t help to convince the public otherwise.
It’s difficult to define what circumstances turn a harmless situation into a threatening one that requires lethal force. In the case of 13 year-old Tyre King, his BB gun was mistaken for a real gun. Although it can be argued that it is difficult for police officer to make correct on-the-spot judgements, the fatal shooting of Alfred Olango hints that there might be reasons other than assuming someone is holding a weapon for why officers drew their guns. At the time of shooting, he had an e-cigarette in his hand, which doesn’t look like a gun.
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The truth is that the problem lies in poor police accountability. Officers feel like they can pull the trigger easily without needing to consider the consequences of their actions. Law enforcers should be given the right to defend themselves in life-threatening situations but they should use it sparingly – the almost casual shooting of civilians, who might only look like they’re dangerous, isn’t right.
According to The Washington Post, out of the 991 shootings so far in 2016, 258 of the victims of fatal police shootings were black while 495 of them were white. The problem might not lie in officers who are being racially discriminatory but in a general lack of police accountability and transparency.
Wherever the problem may stem from and whether there is inadequate accountability or not, the general public’s confidence in the police’s ability to uphold justice and protect the innocent is all but destroyed. “Justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.” This should be the ultimate goal that they should work towards and it can only be achieved through a thoroughly accountable and transparent police misconduct investigation system.