The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland's new study of police-involved killings in the state during the last five years presents several disturbing findings, for example that the rate at which blacks die in such encounters is five times the rate for whites, or that more than 40 percent of those who died were unarmed. But perhaps the most disturbing thing is that despite the extensive efforts of the ACLU's staff and volunteers, we don't really know whether the 109 killings they identified from 2010 through 2014 represents a truly comprehensive accounting. We don't know whether the number is on the rise or decline. We don't really know how that number compares to other states, though there are some indications that it is quite high. Despite the attention the issue of police killings has gotten during the last year, no one, apparently, is keeping track of them here or in other states.
The ACLU became interested in the issue before the public knew the names of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. In 2013 and 2014, after hearing complaints about a number of incidents, including the deaths of Christopher Brown in Randallstown and Tyrone West in Baltimore, ACLU Maryland started trying to determine how often police in the state take the lives of others in the course of their duties and where in the state these killings have taken place. Staff members found no systematic public reporting of instances where police kill civilians and no easy way to find them. The Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention briefly participated in a federal effort to compile this information, but its methods proved far from comprehensive.
With 140 police agencies in the state and no uniform way of reporting police-involved homicides, the ACLU was left to comb through news reports. Though researchers were able to find a substantial number of such killings that way, there is every reason to believe that some simply went unreported.
The massive protests that followed the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., both brought the issue of police killings into the spotlight and led to questions about why we pay so much attention to them when other forms of violence are much more common. That's a false dichotomy. Police killings merit special attention because they are done in the name of the state and because they rarely lead to criminal indictments. (Among the 109 cases the ACLU identified, only two officers were charged, and only one was convicted.) Questioning whether they are too common does not mean we are ignoring the broader issue of violence in the community.
Nor does it mean that we inherently view police killings as wrong or unjust. There are clearly circumstances in which police must use deadly force to protect themselves and others. But if there is one thing that we should all be able to agree on, it's that use of deadly force by police should be as rare as possible. Such killings frequently drive a wedge between police and the communities they are charged with protecting, they leave families grieving, and they often exact a terrible emotional toll on the officers themselves.
The ACLU found evidence suggesting that in nearly two-fifths of the cases it identified, mental health issues, disability or substance abuse may have played a role, and in a fifth of cases, victims were not killed by gunfire but through other, supposedly non-lethal types of force such as restraints, Tasers and pepper spray. Many of those deaths surely could have been avoided if officers had proper support and training, but we don't really know what would have made the difference because, all too often, no one tries to find out. Michael Brown's death may have led to extensive local, state and federal investigations, but the ACLU found that quite often the public gets little more information than what's included in a police press release.
The Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention dabbled in this issue before, and it should renew that effort in a systematic way that includes regular, uniform reporting from Maryland's police agencies. If that requires legislation, the General Assembly should take it up. Unless we try to learn from these incidents, we will be doomed to repeat them. And unless someone compiles information about police killings and starts looking for patterns, we have little hope of learning what can be done to reduce their number.