Since September 2015, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has killed six civilians, which averages to about one person every two months. Let that sink in for a moment.
To put that in international perspective, police officers in the Nordic nation of Finland fired their guns only six times in all of 2013. To put it in national perspective, well, it’s a drop in the bucket. As of Sept. 21, American police officers had killed 844 people across the country. Given that there are 12,501 local police departments, though, that still puts the Charlotte-Mecklenburg number at the high end.
Looking at numbers can be a bit staggering, especially when you force yourself to understand that they’re actually counting lives lost. Six men in Charlotte won’t celebrate the New Year in 2017; six Charlotte families are reeling from the deaths of their children. We all live in a network of friends, family, loved ones, co-workers, classmates — all of the people connected to one of those six men have lost someone to police violence.
The latest one of those six, of course, is Keith Lamont Scott, who police shot on Sept. 16 while they were searching for a completely different person. There are conflicting reports on the situation that led up to the shooting, as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have so far refused to release the video footage to the public. This has the city of Charlotte in turmoil, and people across the country are in shock about yet another unwarranted and unjustifiable shooting of a black man.
The fact that Scott is just another number in a reviling statistic points to the myriad problems that exist in the system as it stands, problems that need changing now. First and foremost is the inherent and institutional racism — police claimed that Scott had a gun, but given that North Carolina is an open-carry state, that was hardly an explanation for why the police should have shot at him. Also, it hasn't been confirmed that Scott had a gun, as witnesses and family said he was unarmed. White people carrying guns encounter police sometimes as well, and these encounters lead to fatal police shootings far less frequently.
It’s not just about race, however, or about the police overreacting to citizens that aren’t posing a threat. All of the other men shot in Charlotte since September 2015 actually had guns and had actually shot them, and the police officer who shot Scott was black himself. What we need a lot more of is police accountability — perhaps some of these officers were justified in shooting out of a need to protect their own lives, but the system needs to ensure that the trigger isn’t the first place that a police officer’s finger goes in a situation that could be diffused another way. Just for an example, in the period between 2005 and 2011, 41 police officers were charged with manslaughter or murder, but there were several thousand cases in which a police officer shot someone and it was ruled a justifiable homicide.
It’s also a legitimate problem that police officers so often find themselves in fear for their lives — and that brings us to another important thing that we need to change: If there weren’t so many guns on the streets, would the police be in such danger? Gun rights activists repeat the fallacy that limiting access to guns wouldn’t stop dangerous criminals from getting them, but the fact is that making guns harder to acquire would lead to fewer people owning them. The violence prevalent in American culture is a huge problem in its own right, but fewer people would die from it if guns were not so readily available to anyone who wants to get one.
These are huge problems, but we as a nation need to address them. No one’s claiming it will be easy, but it’s still easier than what the mothers losing their children have to go through every time the statistic gets bigger.