The American epidemic of police killings

By Rock Hermon Hackshaw

Rock Hermon Hackshaw

When I heard about the Memphis policemen who beat to death Tyre Nichols, a young black male, over a couple traffic infractions, a popular nineteen-seventies pop-song with this refrain came to my mind: “And another one gone, and another one done, another one bites the dust”.

Look, police-killings are a regular occurrence here in the US. Just think of how many people are murdered when there weren’t any cameras around to record the incidents, and they usually got away with it. From 1980 to 2019 there was only a one percent conviction rate of policemen for their deadly actions; they are hardly ever indicted far less convicted.  No motorist – no matter what colour, creed, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identification, or what not – should be beaten to death over a broken car taillight, or a speeding violation.    

Maybe after living in New York City for more than forty years, I am inured to these types of reports as names like Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, Antony Baez, Sean Bell, and Randy Evans, jump at me like a basketball dunker. Even names like Rodney King and Abner Louima – both of whom survived terrible police brutality incidents – have now become cliches.  

Louima had a toilet-plunger shoved up his rectum and is permanently disabled, an incident that cost NYC taxpayers at least seven million dollars. In this naked city, taxpayers dole out millions annually due to police excesses and misbehavior. It is time for government to mandate police officers to have liability insurance when they are contracted. After all, we all need insurance to legally drive an automobile anywhere, so why not policing, which is more intense and riskier than driving.   

From left: Elijah McClain, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks

For those unfamiliar with the name “Randy Evans”, I suggest you do a “Google” search. This is one the most fascinating cases I have ever encountered. It was one of those rare instances where in 1976, a New York City policeman, Robert Torsney, was actually charged with murder. His defense claimed that the officer was temporarily insane when he suffered a rare epileptic seizure that led to the accidental discharge of his weapon at a point-blank range. The bullet entered the head of the fifteen-year-old black male high school student.  

Torsney’s medical records showed no evidence of such an incident any time before or after this shooting, but a jury essentially let him walk away free. He was sent to Creedmoor psychiatric institution in the city, and was released from there in less than two years after a higher court found him not to be a threat to society.  

The Institute of Health Metrics, located within The University of Washington’s Medical School, once undertook a study to find the top 100 causes of death in the USA. Researchers used reports from doctors, medical examiners, and coroners, to accumulate data. They discovered that deaths at the hands of police officers turned up on a list that included illnesses like cancer, strokes, and heart-attacks.

The study found that between 1980 and 2019, deaths at the hands of police officers totaled around 31,000; of this number 9,540 were Blacks. Therefore, the “racism aspect” as regards to policing in the USA cannot be ignored: since Blacks only make up roughly one-seventh of the country’s population. The ages of victims ranged from three months to eighty-eight years; and all races and ethnicities were amongst those who died at the hands of officers. 

After a deep dive into this study, quite a few other troubling things were extrapolated. For example, Blacks were nearly four times more likely to be killed in a police encounter when compared to Whites; and that from 1980 to 2019 these fatalities increased by thirty-eight per cent. The arrest rate for police officers was found to be extraordinarily low. Even after conviction, sentencing was clearly lenient. Many officers, after being fired for misconduct, simply moved to another jurisdiction and joined another police department.

I am suggesting that there should be a national registry that traces the movements of officers who are dismissed for misconduct. Those found guilty of felonies should be barred from ever serving in this capacity again.       

What is exceedingly troubling about the Tyre Nichols case in Memphis, is the fact that the officers involved had turned off their bodycams and lied on their incident-reports. Bodycams were meant to help in minimizing these types of events. There should be a penalty for turning off body-cameras in the line of duty.  

Apologists for police misconduct have highlighted the fact that the officers involved in this event were of the same race as the victim. What this says to me is that racism isn’t the number one reason behind police-misconduct.  All over the world we find this phenomenon. Especially in societies with less racial and ethnic diversity than the USA. It appears that the mentality of too many people undergo rapid changes after joining police departments. They appear to be subsumed by “police-think,” wherein the vast powers they are given reaches its zenith in their minds, and at times, they become, prosecutor, judge, and jury, when they perceive laws as having been broken.

One of my policy-recommendations to police departments everywhere in the world, includes making mental health counselling mandatory for officers on an annual or semi-annual basis. Let mental health professionals regularly evaluate them and their fitness for their role in society. Just as it is mandated that cops go to the gun-range at least bi-annually to demonstrate their fitness to carry a gun, so too should there be mental-health testing and evaluations.

Within the ranks of police officers, we can find high rates of alcoholism, drug use, and drug and spousal abuse. They also have high divorce rates and suicidal tendencies. It is a profession crying out for mental-health interventions.

Rock Hermon Hackshaw is a New York City political activist, freelance journalist and retired university lecturer.