This week’s verdict in the Derek Chauvin murder trial delivered a significant victory to all those, of every race, who demonstrated for more than five years under the slogan “Black Lives Matter”. President Biden and Vice President Harris both hailed the jury’s swift decision as an important first step in an ongoing struggle for justice and equity.
But the recent court case will provide scant benefit to either the Black community or the nation at large, unless our leaders and media place this horrifying episode in a responsible context. In addition to continued efforts to reform policing and weed out bad cops, we need enhanced emphasis on other threats that do even more damage to the well-being and security of communities of color.
In January of this year, National Public Radio (NPR) released a well-researched report that reviewed the number of unarmed Black Americans who have recently died in confrontations with law enforcement. In the six years beginning with 2015, they identified “at least” 135 individuals who died in confrontations with the police. Even assuming that their careful enumeration is wildly understated, and if the real number were twice as high, that would mean 270 deaths over six years, or an average of 45 per year. That number would represent a tragedy, to be sure, and reflect some potential crimes (as proven by the Chauvin case), but it doesn’t amount to “genocide” as some anti-police demonstrators recently insisted.
Moreover, neither NPR nor the Washington Post (which offers its own yearly tallies of deadly confrontations with police) has reported any evidence at all of a recent surge in these incidents; if anything, the frequency of violent encounters with unarmed suspects has gone down, not up.
Compare this situation with the devastating impact of opioid overdoses on the Black community and the nation in general.
In 2019 – the last full year for which figures are available – more than 7,300 Black Americans died of drug overdoses. What’s more, in direct contrast with violent confrontations with cops, the rate of these needless, heart-breaking drug deaths has soared. Among whites, 2013 to 2017, brought a nine-fold increase in deadly overdoses, according to the CDC. For Blacks, the trend has been even worse: an appalling, 18-fold leap in the number of drug deaths in just four years.
There’s another relevant number that the media emphasis on police shootings generally ignores or obscures. In 2019, the federal government reported 7,484 Black murder victims – an appalling toll that significantly exceeds the number of white victims (5,787), despite the fact that non-Hispanic whites are nearly five times more numerous in this country.
In other words, combining deaths in the Black community from opioid overdoes and from homicides, we lose nearly 15,000 of our fellow citizens in the course of a year – compared to 45 (at most) who die in police encounters. That means that a Black American is at least 333 times more likely to die from drugs or crime than he (or she) is to perish in an interaction with law enforcement.
These numbers by no means suggest that the investigation and potential prosecution of “killer cops” is in any way inappropriate. Of course, those who dedicate their lives to law enforcement must be held to a higher standard. But the ongoing, ferocious focus on brutal behavior by officers of the law shouldn’t distract attention from far more dire, destructive factors that menace communities of color.
In fact, police must play a crucial role in combatting those threats if we hope to make progress in counteracting them. If police forces are actually disbanded or defunded, how will any community make real progress against the twin terrors of drugs and crime?
We know that improvements in policing can save lives, in part through our experience since 1991. In that year, the murder rate in the Black Community peaked – at 39.4 per 100,000. Today’s level is less than half that rate, meaning that effective policing has saved at least 80,000 Black lives over the last three decades. The black lives that cops have helped to save should matter just as much as the black lives lost in well-publicized, horrifying confrontations with police?
By treating law enforcement as an implacable enemy, agitators and demagogues strike out against the indispensable institution designed to provide protection to citizens of every race. And some of those same activists who decry the very idea of policing our streets and neighborhoods, simultaneously encourage drug legalization, excusing the debilitating culture of “recreational” drugs. For years before he ever crossed paths with Derek Chauvin, the late George Floyd struggled mightily against the curse of addiction – with dangerous doses of fentanyl and meth found in his system on the same day that the officer shamefully murdered him.
Nothing excuses that crime, and the former Minneapolis cop faces many years in prison – especially with another possible trial on federal civil rights charges. But his conviction will only help the pursuit of justice and progress for the Black community if it shifts new attention to major perils of drugs, crime and failing schools, and less fierce fixation on the rare and over-publicized instances of genuine police abuse.