As of this writing, almost 500 people—138 of them African American—have been shot and killed by police in the United States this year. These numbers come from The Guardian’s investigation that is literally counting the dead.
Outrage against the epidemic of police killings of unarmed black men helped spark a national #BlackLivesMatter protest movement that called for comprehensive reform of the criminal-justice system. The Obama administration’s Task Force on Policing in the 21st Century is, so far, the major policy response to these shootings.
But as many have pointed out, police violence against black women, girls and transgender people of color is often missing from national discussions. In response, thousands of people have taken to the streets, social media and elsewhere to affirm that the lives of black girls and women matter as much as those of black men. The latest case of police brutality against unarmed black people took place in McKinney, Texas, on Friday, when a police officer brutalized a group of black teens attending a pool party. A camera phone caught McKinney Police Cpl. Eric Casebolt pummeling a 15-year-old black girl on the lawn of a suburban neighborhood and pulling out his gun and pointing it toward unarmed teenagers.
Systematic police violence against black and Latino communities, in the form of killings, overt brutality and general harassment, requires a national database. Anecdotal evidence from social media, personal stories and public documents suggests that we have only scratched the surface of widespread illegal use of force by law enforcement that is directed against the African-American community.
A federal database—one that could be publicly accessed by law enforcement, community activists and citizens—is vital to comprehending the depth of police misconduct and fashioning a cure to a national crisis that new technology has made visible to the world.
Our heightened national sensitivity to anti-black violence is a direct result of information sharing, or crowdsourcing, on social media that has turned small cities such as Ferguson, Mo., into a metaphor for racial injustice in the 21st century.
Information, during the civil rights era and now, is power.
The Justice Department’s recent consent decree with the Cleveland Police Department offers a blueprint for requiring big-city and small-town authorities to document and justify every time an officer uses force. Data from large cities and rural areas on police use of force, shootings and brutality will allow institutions and citizens to compare and contrast effective policing versus the illegal violence that flourishes in too many communities.
Such information will aid law enforcement by allowing authorities to draw from states and municipalities that achieve law and order through justice instead of violence and racism.
Local communities will be empowered, too. Communities of color will be more inclined to cooperate and support police officers who—unlike what we witnessed in McKinney—operate out of genuine concern for the safety and security of families, including black children and teenagers.
Public safety is a fundamental part of a healthy democracy, one that requires all citizens to respect and trust the integrity of our law-enforcement officials and institutions.
African Americans, by virtue of their original status as legal property during antebellum slavery, have always had a star-crossed relationship with the law. Blacks are more likely to live in high-crime neighborhoods and to be victims of homicide. Illegal police violence, harassment, arrests and killings in low-income black neighborhoods place a double burden on African-American lives.
A national database of police interaction with citizens would not be a cure for the seemingly epidemic levels of anti-black violence plaguing the nation, but it would be an important step in securing tools that will finally lead to the major policy reforms that might halt this national nightmare before it’s too late.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.