There have been a lot of uniquely awful mass shooting tragedies in the news lately; the shocking uniqueness makes them newsworthy, because it’s new, or at least, out-of-the-ordinary. But it’s easy to confuse the frequency of these heartbreaking reports with the actual rate of mass shootings in which four or more people are shot. They didn’t “start up again” once COVID-19 vaccines became available — they were happening all throughout 2020, too, at even higher rates than before. They were just overshadowed by other news that was deemed more new and newsworthy.
Believe it or not, mass shootings account for just 1% of all gun deaths in America. The ones we hear about tend to take place in public settings, where some disgruntled person (usually a man) takes their anger out on strangers (often, though not always, in ways that reflect and resonate with larger issues around racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc). More often, however, mass shootings occur inside of homes, and/or between people who already knew each other. But their stories don’t get much press beyond the local news, because they’re not deemed to be “new.”
Similarly, the trial of Derek Chauvin made the news because it was also unique. Aside from the obvious reasons of racist police brutality and the cruel exploitation of victims of the opioid epidemic, there’s the fact that Chauvin was just 1 of 5 police officers since 2005 to be convicted of murder without the case being overturned (so far). Again: that’s news, because it’s new.
Like mass shootings, most police shootings occur without any news or fanfare. The difference is that police shootings actually occur at twice the rate of mass shootings, with about a thousand people shot and killed by police every year (a disproportionate number of whom are racial/ethnic minorities, and/or people with disabilities), compared to less than 500 people killed in mass shootings annually on average. According to the American Sociological Association, 350 out of every 100,000 Americans are killed by gun homicides, and 52 out of every 100,000 men are killed by police shootings.
Put another way: one out of every seven Americans killed by a gun is killed by a cop. And you’re more than twice as likely to be killed by a cop than a random mass shooter. But these events don’t tend to grab as many headlines.
Our society has trained us from an early age to accept that there are police, who are good, and criminals, who are bad, and that those good police officers are out there risking their lives every single day to fight those bad criminals. As a result, discussions of policing in America tend to cause knee-jerk emotional responses. Maybe you tried to justify those statistics in your head by convincing yourself that it’s different, that maybe those victims had it coming, or were criminals, or that it’s the price we pay for being safe. Those thousand-plus gun deaths are all legally justified thanks to qualified immunity, so that technically makes them fine, right?
The reality is that only 27% of all police officers ever use their gun on the job for any reason at all (police officers who are white men are significantly more likely to do this than officers who are women or racial/ethnic minorities). That’s partially because, statistically speaking, police work is less dangerous than driving a truck or working in waste disposal, and it’s been getting increasingly safer for years. Again, you’re probably trying to rationalize this, perhaps by arguing that policing is only that safe because of guns. But the numbers don’t bear that out: most police fatalities are caused in automobile accidents, and the national mean of cops who’ve ever experienced a firearm assault on the job is 0.47 out of every thousand officers.
However, if garbagemen were killing a thousand people a year without consequence, you would absolutely hear about it on the news. Even if their reasons were “justified.” Even if less than 1 out of every 2,000 garbagemen were assaulted by someone with a firearm while on the job.
I think everyone agrees that mass shootings are a problem. So it stands to reason that police killings are an even bigger problem. If a quarter of all police officers are responsible for nearly 15% of all gun homicides in this country — including twice as many deaths as mass shooters — then that’s a serious problem. It’s also an affront to the “rule of law,” and every platitude we’re taught about due process and presumption of innocence. Sure, there are some individuals who work as police officers who are also good people. There are also individuals like Derek Chauvin. Every individual deserves to be held accountable for their own individual actions. But the individual victims of police shootings are not given that opportunity, because of the institution of policing.
(While we’re at it: the families of police officers are two to four times more likely to suffer from domestic violence, too. If you think domestic violence is a problem — which, hopefully you do — then you should also think this is a huge problem.)
Perhaps you still think it’s necessary for a government to have the power to kill civilians without a trial or a charge in order to “protect” communities. Perhaps you believe that doubling the rate of mass shootings yields a worthwhile return-on-investment for your sense of safety. But once again, the facts don’t bear that out: Since 2014, police have taken more money and property from innocent Americans than burglars have, thanks to the increasing power of Civil Asset Forfeiture laws. Over the last 20 years, police have legally confiscated more than $68 billion dollars from people like you and me, without charges or trials. And unsurprisingly, none of this has helped to lower crime rates! (Also unsurprising is that Black and Brown communities are hit the worst by this.)
You don’t usually hear about these things on the news, though, because they’re not unique or new. They’re just the normal, every day reality of American law enforcement that we’ve been forced to live with. But why? I certainly didn’t consent to that. When the threat of death and theft is higher with police than without them, then it might be time to renegotiate the price we pay for freedom. At the very least, we can start by getting rid of their guns and military toys; that will, objectively, make the rest of us safer.