The Standards of News and the Death of Others

The Standards of News and the Death of Others

Yesterday’s blog post looked at the attention paid to a report issued at the end of last year that showed a stunning 56 percent increase in the number of officers killed by gunfire in 2014 as compared to 2013. While I didn’t explore the matter in the previous blog, that stunning increase results, in large part, from a stunningly low number of police fatalities due to gunshot wounds in 2013. The more important point in yesterday’s blog, at least for me, was that any one death of an officer is sufficiently tragic to justify our attention . . . and our shared grief.

I wish to generalize this important point, however. What makes these shootings of officers noteworthy is that they are unnecessary (and therefore tragic). They are the result of individuals deciding that it is okay to endanger the life of another human being in pursuit of the gains of crime, or as a form of revenge for perceived wrongs perpetrated by other individuals in uniform, or for some other cause for which there simply isn’t a conceivable and credible moral justification.

We know about these deaths because we have decided (rightly, I think) that the death of an officer killed in the line of duty is something of consequence for the whole community and, indeed, for the whole nation. Because such deaths are tragic. Because they are unnecessary. Because they deprive all of us of a sense of peace and safety.

I only wish to suggest that a similar level of collective concern (and collective grief) is merited whenever anyone dies unnecessarily. Whether he or she is in uniform or not.

While we have a pretty good sense of the number of police officers killed each year in the line of duty, we have a remarkably poor accounting of the number of civilians who die at the wrong end of a police firearm annually. We also have little if any meaningful data about the number of those deaths that were “necessary” from a public safety perspective.

A criminologist at the University of South Carolina, Geoff Alpert, offered a troubling account of this gap in our knowledge in an interview with USA Todayback in August of last year:

There is no national database for this type of information, and that is so crazy. We’ve been trying for years, but nobody wanted to fund it and the (police) departments don’t want it. They were concerned with their image and liability. They don’t want to bother with it.

The only existing database, maintained by the FBI, is both woefully incomplete and of highly suspect validity, not because the FBI is doing anything wrong, but because all of the data in the database is created by voluntary self-reporting by a tiny fraction of all the law enforcement agencies in the country.

If I ask my students on a survey (to which their names are attached) what they think of my teaching, my hunch is that I’ll get a falsely positive impression of my own brilliance. Just a hunch.

If we care about tragic deaths, we need to know when, how, and how often they happen, and to whom. I’m not even suggesting that most of the police shootings of civilians are unjustified; I frankly have no idea, and neither does anyone else. That’s precisely the problem.

And even if a shooting was justifiable, that’s not the same thing as saying it was inevitable. Perhaps by the time the officer faced the civilian, the outcome was determined. But sometime before that, if we understood these lives and what led them to these tragic ends, perhaps we could find ways of intervening that would reduce the bloodshed.