How long have the police been killing Black men?

Author note: this post is in no way an expression of astonishment over how long this has been occurring (American Blacks – rural and urban – have always been violently policed by one entity or another). The post is more a reaction to two ideas that have been expressed in recent years in the wake of each high-profile killing of a Black person. One of those ideas is that, yes, this has been happening for a long time, but we just didn’t know about it because there were no cameras on phones until the 2010s. Takagi’s 1974 essay shows that activists and radical scholars have in fact been documenting this for quite some time. His essay also shows that the discussion around possible solutions has been remarkably stagnant. The second idea is one that is often expressed on protest signs – “for all those whose names we don’t know”. There are indeed countless names that we don’t know. There are two mentioned in this post, Raymond Jones and Linda Anderson, who were killed by Chicago police in the 1960s for the crime of being Black. Let’s use this moment to finally end police violence and mass incarceration.

Well, yes, since forever. But in light of the recent racial justice uprising, I was dusting off some old criminology books on my bookshelf and began leafing through a collection of articles entitled Crime and Social Justice published in 1981. I happened to hone in the last article in the collection, which was an essay published in 1974 by the prominent sociologist Paul Takagi.

The essay, entitled “A Garrison State in ‘Democratic Society”, examines a number of federal and state reports from the 1960s on the killings of police on one side and the killings of civilians by police on the other. As regards the former, Takagi notes, after reviewing the statistics, that the trend lines for the police officer death rate was flat or declining throughout the 1960s. He thus concludes that, despite claims of policing being a particularly dangerous job, the risk of occupational fatality was considerably lower than any number of other industries employing a lot more people – coal mining being at the top of the list (nevertheless, this claim never seems to die).

When he turns his attention to the data on civilian killings by the cops, however, Takagi finds a very different situation. He writes:

What is generally not known by the public, and either unknown or certainly not publicized by the police and other officials, is the alarming increase in the rate of deaths of male citizens caused by, in the official terminology, “legal intervention of police”. These are the cases recorded on the death certificates as ‘justifiable homicide’ by police intervention. After disappearing onto computer tapes, these reappear as statistics in the annually published official volumes of “Vital Statistics in the United States”. Here they can be found under “Cause of Death, Code Number 984”, where they have attracted very little attention.

And which males were dying at an “alarming” rate during this period? You guessed it: Black males. Per Takagi:

Black men have been killed by police a rate some nine to ten times higher than white men. From the same obscure, but published source in our nation’s Capitol [sic] come disheartening statistics. Between 1960 and 1968, police killed 1,188 Black males and 1,253 white males in a population in which about ten percent are Black. The rates of homicides due to police intervention increased over the years for both white and Blacks, but remained consistently at least nine times higher for Blacks for the past 18 years.

Takagi then poses several possible ways to explain away this disparity and properly dispenses with all of them. Most telling of all, in his mind, is the fact that there is still a sizable disparity when one examines the polar ends of the age groups of these two demographics of males:

Take the age groups where “desperate” criminals are much less likely to be found, the very young and the very old. Male homicides by police during 1964-8 were as shown in Table 8.2:

Table 8.2

 Number of deathsRate per million/yearly
 WhiteBlackWhiteBlack
Ages 10 -145110.121.75
Ages 65 +5140.144.76

In proportion to population, Black youngsters and old men have been killed by police at a rate 15 to 30 times greater than that for whites of the same age. It is the actual experiences behind the statistics like these that suggest that police have one trigger finger for whites and another for Blacks. The latest statistics, those for 1968, give no reason for altering this belief.

Takagi then cites the work of another scholar Gerald Robin from 1963 that examined these numbers for the 1950s and finds the same disparity in multiple cities. Here is a reproduction of the table in the article:

Table 8.3   Rates of Black and white decedents, by city

 BlackWhite Black/White ratio
Cityper 1 000 000
Akron16.12.75.8 to 1
Chicago16.12.17.4 to 1
Kansas City, MO17.02.27.5 to 1
Miami24.42.78.8 to 1
Buffalo7.10.512.2 to 1
Philadelphia5.40.221.9 to 1
Boston3.20.125.2 to 1
Milwaukee13.50.429.5 to 1

What is particularly remarkable about the city-based statistics from the 1950s, Takagi notes, is that “the two cities with the lowest police ‘justifiable homicide’ rates, Boston and Milwaukee, killed Blacks in proportion to whites at a ratio of 25 to 29 times higher.”

And one can only experience a bit of plus ça change when reading Takagi’s following cite from Gerald Robin’s investigation of police killings in Philadelphia:

Thirty of the 32 cases (28 were Black victims) were disposed of by the medical examiner, who at the inquest exonerated the officers involved in the killings on the grounds that death was due to justifiable homicide. In the two remaining cases the officers were held for the grand jury, indicted, tried by a jury, and found not guilty.

Takagi cites a different study by Ralph Knoohuizen et al examining civilian deaths at the hands of the Chicago police that likewise found substantial evidence of police misconduct in 28 of the 76 cases they reviewed. Takagi reproduces three of their summaries of the individual cases to illustrate his point, one of which certainly has echoes of George Floyd:

Case 2. The victim was Raymond Jones. Police action was ruled excusable because police officers did not strike the deceased and were only using the amount of force necessary to bring the suspect under arrest. Seven of the 9 officers involved in the incident testified and confirmed each other’s story. The report of the Coroner’s pathologist, however, revealed that Mr. Jones was age 31 and in good health. He was also unarmed. The use of excessive force was implied when 9 police officers cannot subdue a suspect without causing his death.

One of the other three cases cited by Takagi, incidentally, was shockingly reminiscent of Breonna Taylor’s killing:

Case 1. The victim was Linda Anderson. Police action resulting in her death was ruled justifiable homicide because, according to police reports, she was killed accidentally during an attempt to gain entry to her apartment by shooting the lock off the door. The partner of the officer, and independent witnesses, corroborated the police officer’s version. An independent investigation revealed that the officer used a shotgun standing four feet from the door, did not warn the occupant of impending shot, and missed the lock completely.

Takagi notes that even in cases where grand jury findings held police officers criminally liable, the courts were reluctant to proceed with prosecution, and even when they did, the defendant was either acquitted or found not guilty – a situation that has seemingly remained unchanged.

In light of this data, Takagi concludes:

Authorities have been trying to combat what they view to be a rash of attacks on police, to the neglect of all the data that bear on the problem – a problem in which other lives are involved. The problem has existed all along; at least since 1950, and there is reason to believe for decades before that, Black people have been killed by the police at a tragically disproportionate rate, beyond the bounds of anything that would justify it…Black people don’t need these statistics to tell them what has been happening. They news gets around the neighborhood when someone is killed by the police. It is part of a history. But white people, especially policy-makers, don’t live in those neighborhoods, and it is important that they explore the statistics further.

Takagi goes on to discuss the differing responses to crime and policing at the community level, which sound all too familiar today. On one side, there is the predictable crowd of folks favoring “law and order” who “[appear] before local government bodies to promote support for the police and more ‘discipline’ in schools.”

Where I truly got the “Wow! We’ve been here before…” feeling, however, is when I read the following passage:

Other citizens’ groups have encouraged the introduction of reforms. People have worked on a variety of schemes such as Civilian Review Boards, psychological testing and screening of police candidates, human relations training, police community relations, racially integrated patrol units, and efforts to increase the hiring of Black and other minority officers. To the extent that they work to improve only the “image” of the police, they fail because policemen, most of them willingly and others unknowingly, are used as the front line to maintain social injustices inherent in other institutions and branches of the government.

Takagi posits that the best immediate solution is simply to disarm the police, although he admits that will hardly end all instances of police misconduct and killings (returning to our own time, one need only remember that Eric Garner and George Floyd, for instance, were not killed with a gun). Being a radical criminologist, Takagi sees the problem as being endemic to our racialized capitalist system – a problem that will not be solved at the level of the system that created it.

It seems important to bear all of this in mind as we turn from anger and protest to a discussion of solutions – which, here in Arlington, currently seems focused on technical and administrative ones like body-worn cameras and civilian review boards (not that I am opposed to either). The more substantive answer to our police problem may be to have fewer of them (and having them do less patrolling whereby they look for things to police), while increasing the number of non-police first responders as well as investments in education, housing, health, and high-quality jobs. That, in a nutshell, is the vision of #DefundPolice.  

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