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Solving police brutality will need to go beyond solving racism

By analysing data, we might be able to offer concrete solutions to the issue that has caused so much unrest.

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Image Credit: Bruce Emmerling

The recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have once again thrown the issue of American police brutality back into the national consciousness: the real tragedy of police killings, however, is that many of the solutions to the violence are clear and statistically proven. Race is a substantial factor in many police killings in the US, but the nebulous nature of both explicit and implicit racism makes the solutions to those problems harder to track and address. Race, although important, is only part of the story, which starts with America’s stark urban/rural divide.

Around six years ago, after protests erupted across the US in response to the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson, a large body of research began forming to track police violence across the US: a statistic that the federal government for some reason still declines to measure.

Unofficial figures collected by the Washington Post and Fatal Encounters now map a noteworthy pattern of police killings in the US. They show that although the rate of fatal police encounters remained relatively consistent nationwide (at least since 2014,) the difference between America’s 30 largest cities, and the rest of the country, is incredibly stark.

The number of police shootings has actually dropped in 23 of the 30 cities, by 37% since the studies began. This has tragically been offset hugely by a large increase in police shootings, both fatal and non-fatal, in rural and suburban areas. This includes a spike in the rate of killings of white Americans in rural areas too, despite the rate of killings dropping across all races in urban areas.

In 2014, protests about police brutality lacked an understanding of how to solve the issue, beyond asking police to treat every suspect equally. Today, a huge selection of studies now point to several reforms that could make a difference.

The first key change is in how the police approach suspects: establishing a relationship is a proven way to reduce killings. Denver, Colorado, and Los Angeles, California, have both seen huge drop offs in fatal police encounters after training in de-escalation, and non-deadly force, for example.

This change has since been echoed in other cities. In Chicago in 2017, African-American Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson presided over a double-digit drop in police shootings after implementing training in restrictive use of force and increased accountability for officers accused of misconduct.

De-escalation is still an under-appreciated skill in the US, often seen as ‘soft politics’ in a sector that largely favours a more ‘law and order’ approach to community policing. Communication with suspects through a single officer, attempting to find non-violent solutions to problems, and calming suspects down before using force are all more synonymous with the training British police receive: a serious problem, considering that the stakes are higher in the US, where gun ownership is far more common.

Furthermore, American police killings match up closely with the number of arrests in the same area, because police are substantially more likely to use force when making arrests than in any other interaction with their community. (Arrests, funnily enough, are tracked by the federal government through the FBI, because they enable precincts to justify their budgets.)

Per the FBI Uniform Crime Report, falling arrest numbers, mean falling police killings: cities that reduced their police shootings made 35% fewer arrests in 2018 than 2013. Cities that didn’t reduce their arrests, reduced police killings by just 4%.

American states have two simple solutions to the problem of police violence: require officers to train de-escalation techniques, and ease penalties for non-violent and narcotic-related offences.

There are other measures that would also go a long way to decreasing American police brutality. Of course, banning choke and strangleholds, the kind that killed George Floyd, is a necessity: such practises have been prohibited in the UK for years and were successfully banned by Minneapolis’ own police force on Friday last week.

Finally, more diverse police forces have been proven to decrease police brutality in the communities they protect, when combined with the other measures already mentioned. According to David Sklansky, an expert in Criminal Justice from Stanford, diversification “isn’t a magic wand” but large increases in minority representation in the US’ overwhelmingly white police force could help improve relations with their communities.

This has been best exemplified, once again, by the city of Chicago, which stepped up recruitment in 2016, and saw a measurable decrease in police misconduct towards minorities. It also worked in the UK, where a Washington Post study found that squads that diversified saw a decrease of around 30% in the proportion of ethnic minorities selected for stop and searches.

Unlike 2014, police forces in the US now know what measures work to make their officers more effective without necessarily using force. Unfortunately, as Samuel Sinyangwe, writing for FiveThirtyEight notes, the political will isn’t there. The urban-rural political divide is the largest barrier to entry for most common-sense policing reforms: to really reduce police killings, the Black Lives Matter movement needs more than the support of just one of America’s parties. The Republican party must abandon its ‘law and order’ rhetoric, and commit to reducing police violence through any measure that works.

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