A much-lauded violence-interrupters program fizzled largely because of neglect from City Hall, observers say. Credit: Flickr creative commons
Officer-involved killings provoke an outcry but account for a tiny fraction of black lives snuffed out.
Officer-involved killings provoke an outcry but account for a tiny fraction of black lives snuffed out.

As Baton Rouge mourned the loss of police Officer Montrel Jackson late last month, his widow offered a requiem almost as powerful as the Facebook message her husband posted a few days before he and several other law-enforcement officers were gunned down by a sniper, apparently angry over police shootings of young black men:

“I know that there is fear and unrest among those who feel like all police are bad,” Trenisha Jackson said at the funeral. “But please know and understand that not all police are bad.”

That comment echoed her husband’s Facebook meditation in which he noted that he felt hated, in and out of uniform — hated by some for being a black man, hated by others for being a cop, a profession of which he was fiercely proud.

Jackson’s widow also said this: “Until we come together and unite as one, there will be more killing. That’s not what I want to see.”

Coming together will require work to improve law-enforcement practices, and that certainly includes rooting out racist officers and sensitizing others to reasons why police are often distrusted within communities of color. But it also requires acknowledging a painful reality, a reality that the media — and the Black Lives Matter movement — have both shied away from, insisting it’s irrelevant.

The reality is this:

The disproportionate rate at which black Americans die in encounters with police reflects the disproportionate rate at which black Americans are involved in crime. Especially homicide.

It’s a problem deeply rooted in a culture of poverty and racial oppression, but that’s not an argument for ignoring it. Rather, it’s an argument for radically rethinking our strategies — both by police and within the communities of color that bear the terrible burden imposed by this violence.

A look at the numbers:

According to U.S. census data and the 2014 FBI Uniform Crime Report (the most recent year for which complete crime data are available), black Americans are 13 percent of the population, yet commit 37 percent of all murders. By comparison, white Americans, who are 64 percent of the population, commit 31 percent of murders.

In total, over 6,000 black Americans are killed in the U.S. annually — 150 in Orleans Parish alone — and more than 90 percent of black victims die at the hands of black killers. The U.S. Justice Department calculates that blacks are eight times more likely to commit murder than whites.

Because all black lives matter, the most impactful action that can be taken now to curb the epidemic of black homicide is for people of conscience, black and white alike, to take a stand, move beyond catchphrases, and grapple with the hard truths that underlie the killing.

The best available data on officer-involved deaths shows that 18 black men (known to be unarmed and not otherwise attacking cops at the time of their deaths) were killed in police encounters in 2015, compared with 15 white men. Proportional to overall population, unarmed black men were seven times as likely as unarmed white men to die at the hands of police, roughly mirroring the black homicide rate. (Note: The data come from the Washington Post, which has completed a landmark study of officer-involved killings. (Note: The federal government has just begun collecting data on officer-involved killings comparable to the Washington Post study cited above, but does not yet have a full year’s tally to draw on.)

The avoidable loss of 18 lives is tragic. But the numbers also provide an important perspective. Eighteen deaths are 0.3 percent of the annual total of 6,000 black American murder victims, mostly killed by other black Americans. The Black Lives Matter movement is correct that there is an epidemic of killing underway, but our presently narrow focus on incidents of police misconduct, alleged or proven, is an upside-down approach to saving black life.

There are now indications that the movement might not only be misdirected, but also counterproductive when it comes to reducing the loss of black life. Criminologists and law enforcement leaders speak of the “Ferguson effect,” so named for the Missouri town that was the scene of rioting and public outcry two years ago after a young black man robbed a convenience store and was killed by a police officer whose gun he tried to grab.

Criminologists continue to debate whether the Ferguson effect has emboldened criminals or intimidated police — or both. FBI director James Comey speaks more generally of a “chill wind” that has fallen over law enforcement, primarily in big cities with sizable communities of color. That’s where a spike in violence, which first appeared in the months following the events of Ferguson, has hit hardest, and it’s where effective prosecution of criminals depends, as it always has, on the cooperation of often-reluctant witnesses.

Because all black lives matter, the most impactful action that can be taken now to curb the epidemic of black homicide is for people of conscience, black and white alike, to take a stand, move beyond catchphrases, and grapple with the hard truths that underlie the killing. And it means providing law enforcement with sorely needed intelligence.

New Orleans Police Chief Michael Harrison and Mayor Mitch Landrieu acknowledged that need last November when they asked community members to come forward and identify the perpetrators of the mass shooting at Bunny Friend Park that injured 17. Ten young men have since been indicted, thanks in part to witnesses sharing essential information in the form of cellphone videos, photos, and oral accounts.

The intense pressures faced by witnesses of crime who choose to cooperate with the police should not be understated. They risk social isolation, even lethal retaliation for finding the courage in themselves to testify against the criminals preying on their communities.

The culture of silence they’re up against is deeply entrenched, it’s even encouraged by defense attorneys such as John Fuller, a New Orleans lawyer who uses social media to shame and intimidate witnesses against his clientele who might come forward. “Watch out for those C.I.s, also known as Confidential Informants. They breaking up families and sending good dudes up that road!!” says a posting on Fuller’s Instagram account. (Fuller is the target of an ethics investigation for witness tampering, a charge he denies.)

Encouraging silence and non-cooperation amounts to complicity with criminals and all but guarantees a dual system of legal standards that leaves blacks less protected and more likely to take justice into their own hands. The truth is that cooperation with law enforcement is the only hope communities have for reducing violence and providing its victims with both justice and the emotional closure that it can bring.

The Black Lives Matter movement is right to draw attention to misconduct within law enforcement, but it’s incumbent on all of us who are serious about protecting black life to support community members who dare to speak out against the 99.7 percent of the killings that have nothing to do with police.

Trenisha Jackson got at both sides of the problem in her funeral remarks. She urged victims of police misconduct to find the courage to identify abusive officers. “Call them out by saying that particular officer’s name,” she said. It was her way of differentiating the bad actors from the bulk of police officers, men and women who, like her husband, are proud of the work they do and are careful to do it ethically.

Ethical police work builds trust and inspires the kind of community support that is necessary for achieving public safety.

Although the epidemic loss of black life did not begin overnight, we should not be satisfied with an equally slow fix. Were the victims white, society would demand a rapid response.

Community collaboration with police in violence-prone neighborhoods is the only way to quickly halt the seemingly interminable cycle of drug and pride-motivated vendettas — what Trenisha Jackson called “this tragic cycle.”

In turn, abated levels of black criminality will reduce the incidence of inappropriate action taken against black people by cops — men and women who are as cognizant of black violence as are members of the communities it is destroying.

Austen Ward is the founder of the South 7th Ward Security District and the Lauren Tanski Friendship Park. He’s a husband and father.