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U.S. | Police State and Prisons

The Olympic Debate: 'Tis The Season To Be Phony
by junya
Wednesday Apr 16th, 2008 11:36 PM
In October 2007 the US released the first national measurement of killings by US police. The Justice Department reported 2,002 arrest-related deaths during the three years from 2003 through 2005. Killings by police were the leading cause of such deaths during this period, reported over four times more often than any other cause of arrest-related death: 1,095 killings (55 percent). There were exactly 1,096 days in 2003-2005. That means, on average, the US police killed a person every day. If human rights advocates in the US stop pointing the finger abroad for a moment, and apply to our own home the same standards used in judging other countries, what would we learn?
torchsuspect.jpg
torchsuspect.jpg

The Beijing Olympics have provided a historic opportunity to amplify US criticism of China's human rights record. Meanwhile, another significant historic event passed quietly, with little notice and no howls of protest, when in October 2007 the US released the first national measurement of killings by US police. The Justice Department reported 2,002 arrest-related deaths during the three years from 2003 through 2005. Killings by police were the leading cause of such deaths during this period, reported over four times more often than any other cause of arrest-related death: 1,095 killings (55 percent). There were exactly 1,096 days in 2003-2005. That means, on average, the US police killed a person every day. If human rights advocates in the US stop pointing the finger abroad for a moment, and apply to our own home the same standards used in judging other countries, what would we learn?

By now it should be common knowledge that the US beat out China and Russia years ago - as the top nation for locking people in cages. Even the US Senate acknowledged US lockup mania (though their concern was not with human rights, but the economic cost of maintaining mass imprisonment), with its Joint Economic Committee declaring in October [http://jec.senate.gov/WED/2007/10.01.07.pdf]:

After remaining roughly steady through most of the 20th century, the U.S. incarceration rate has soared 470 percent since 1970. About 1 out of every 133 U.S. residents is in prison or jail today, as opposed to 1 out of every 620 in 1970. Many more are on probation or parole. The current U.S. incarceration rate is the highest in the world and far exceeds the global average of approximately 1 out of every 602 persons imprisoned.

At the same time that the US fixation on imprisonment finally began receiving Senate and heavy media attention, the frightening statistics on police killings received a mere blip on the propaganda screen - just enough to ensure that the public retained a distorted perspective of the facts. This CNN dialogue between anchor Kiran Chetry and former prosecutor Sunny Hostin was typical of the spin [http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0710/12/ltm.01.html]:

CHETRY: Let's switch to another thing, there was a new government study that came out. They talked about deaths while in custody, suspects who died in police custody over a two-year period. The headlines seemed to say, you know, over 2,000 suspects died in custody nationwide. When you read the fine print, 40 million arrests it is makes up 1:10,000 of 1 percent...

HOSTIN: Exactly and that's a very important statistic that really our law enforcement officers are well trained and it is rare that an arrest-related death occurs...

CHETRY: And also interesting they say in those cases when there were homicides in custody, 80 percent of those times officers say they were threatened by a weapon, it is such a balancing act when you're making an arrest of a suspect you believe to be violent.

HOSTIN: Absolutely and it's a confrontational thing. People are getting arrested generally for criminal conduct that's why you see 80 percent involving weapons

This is a good example of what Malcolm X warned of: "If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing."

First of all, they got it wrong. The study period (from 2003 through 2005) was three years, not two. In addition, CNN's calculation was incorrect: 2000 deaths from 40 million arrests is a death rate of 5:1000 of 1 percent (2000 deaths from 4000 arrests would be 50%, from 40,000 would be 5%...from 40 million is 0.005%). That means the death rate is 50 times what CNN stated.

Secondly, CNN suggests that we should celebrate the nearly two arrest-related deaths a day, because police made over 36,000 arrests each day. But CNN did not explain why we should celebrate over 36,000 arrests each day, now that we no longer celebrate our nation's fame as The World's Biggest Prison.

Would this report have been so upbeat if those same statistics were for China? If the US human rights record were reported in the same way the US reports on the record of other countries, perhaps CNN would have pointed out:

  • Of the 191 countries included in the 2006 US State Dept. reports on human rights, 48 (25%) were reported as having NO deaths following police contact - confirmed, alleged, or suspected. That's an important statistic to bear in mind when hearing "our law enforcement officers are well trained and it is rare that an arrest-related death occurs". The 48 include US friend/neighbor Canada, along with US enemy/neighbor Cuba.
  • Although the US population is not quite 15 times that of Australia, the number killed by US police was over 60 times the number killed by Australia forces.
  • Despite a population less than 5 times the UK, killings by US police in 2004 were over 120 times the number killed by UK police.
  • While the US murder rate during 2003-2005 was 3.7-4.2 times higher than that of Australia and UK, the US police killing rate was 4.1-74 times higher.
When security forces in China kill in Tibet, or Burma security forces gun down anyone in the streets, they always justify their killing by blaming the victim. Do US commentators take the word of those security forces as fact, then respond by noting that "it is such a balancing act when you're making an arrest of a suspect you believe to be violent"? No - there is clamor for independent investigation, not a blithe salute to the training of the killers. Yet, the US government has no independent body to investigate police killings, or any other arrest-related deaths. This lack of firm accountability ensures that the killers enjoy de facto impunity. Police who kill are rarely punished, regardless of the circumstance. That's why when a Virginia SWAT force member received three weeks unpaid suspension after he killed an unarmed, nonviolent, non-threatening optometrist, and then claimed it was an accident, the police union protested. They argued that an oral or written reprimand is typically given when their police accidentally shoot someone. The union cried that the suspension was "way off the charts".

So some US police openly declare that a human life is worth far less than three weeks of their paychecks. Is this the standard of human rights used to judge Beijing's moral qualifications for hosting the Olympics? Do US human rights activists recall the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, in her speech to the UN for the tenth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home ...Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.

Bureau of Justice Statistics, Special Report: Arrest-Related Deaths in the United States, 2003-2005 http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/ardus05.pdf

For a more complete attempt to apply US human rights standards "close to home", see:
Close To Home: Measuring US Respect For The Human Right To Life
Part One
Part Two