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Black Lives Matter activism is working

Police shootings of African Americans and unarmed suspects are declining — but progress is at risk.

Anti-police brutality demonstrators protest in Detroit, Michigan on May 30.
Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

The deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of white police officers could give the impression that little has changed since the Black Lives Matter movement took hold in 2013 — that incidents of police violence are becoming more common. The truth appears to be the opposite.

Since the 2014 wave of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the number of black people killed by the police has gone down, according to data from Mapping Police Violence. So has the number of unarmed people of all races killed by police. And the number of unarmed black people killed by law enforcement has seen a sharper decline.

At the same time, activists have changed national media priorities. Once largely ignored, national outlets have begun to cover incidents of police violence more regularly since nearly six years ago when protesters brought the death of Michael Brown Jr. into the national consciousness. When George Floyd died in Minneapolis last week, it dominated media coverage because activism has changed the news agenda. Incidents of violence aren’t increasing — we just hear about them more.

It’s obvious from the scale of the protests this week that many people aren’t satisfied with the level of progress that’s been made. That’s because there is still a ways to go: Police still disproportionately target black people, and are rarely convicted of crimes in these cases.

And President Donald Trump has personally sought to undermine reforms with a mix of incendiary rhetoric, abandonment of promising Obama-era policies, and the promiscuous use of the pardon power to benefit a crooked police official and war criminals. But a sense of futility and despair can undermine the resolve that’s necessary to create further improvements. So it’s worth saying again — the years of activism are making a difference.

Police killings by the numbers

Three charts from the Mapping Police Violence project offer some cause for optimism.

First, the number of black people killed by police officers has declined by about 10 percent.

Mapping Police Violence

And needless to say, while some police killings represent abusive, illegal, or at a minimum, avoidable behavior, sometimes the police kill someone because they could be a bona fide danger to the public. That’s why the deaths of unarmed suspects have been a particular focus of activism.

Here, too, we see a large (albeit slightly unsteady) decline:

Put the two together and you can get a chart of the number of killings of unarmed black people. This is not a huge number of cases in absolute terms, so there’s a lot of year-to-year instability. But whether you use 2013 or 2014 as the base year, there has been a significant percentage decline in these incidents.

Mapping Police Violence

These declines have been partially offset by a rise in deaths of armed Hispanics or people of unknown race, so the overall numbers of police killings are only slightly down. But the focus of activism has been on unarmed people and historic anti-black racism in policing, and there is considerable progress on both those fronts.

By contrast, after hitting a historic low point in 2014, the national murder rate climbed in 2015 and then again in 2016. That contributed to the sense that the country was perhaps operating in a zone of sharp trade-offs between over-aggressive policing and murders. But the murder rate fell in 2017 and fell again in 2018. And while we don’t yet have definitive data for 2019, the FBI’s preliminary report suggests the murder rate fell 3.9 percent last year.

And indeed, as the Brennan Center’s analysis of the 2019 data notes, there has been particular success in keeping the murder rate low and falling in the high-profile cities of New York and San Francisco — both of which have police unions that tend to insist that local elected officials are ruining everything. There is a potentially happier story to tell in which the police are being somewhat more conscientious about the use of force while continuing to do a good job of containing violence in most of America.

The US could do a lot better

Progress is not a reason for complacency.

German Lopez outlined eight policy ideas for reducing violence against civilians without compromising officer safety or crime control back in 2016, and essentially all of those ideas are still applicable today.

One particularly telling point is that in most police departments, officers receive much more training in how to hurt people than in how to defuse tense situations. This naturally ends up with a higher share of tense situations ending in violence than could otherwise be the case.

It’s also the case that, though this goes against much of the tenor of recent protests, hiring more police officers is another way to potentially reduce police violence. The evidence shows that having more cops on the beat can reduce crime. A recent study by John MacDonald, Jeffrey Fagan, and Amanda Geller that looked at localized policing surges in New York City (dubbed “Operation Impact” by the NYPD) found that it wasn’t the excess force or “stop and frisk” tactics by police that led to crime reduction. It was simply the increase in beat cops.

At the same time, it’s also very clear that overstressed, overtired officers working too many shifts generate more complaints of excessive force. Across a variety of studies, tired officers generated more complaints from civilians. If departments had more officers, they could simultaneously increase the number of officers available while reducing the work demands on individual officers.

Additional scrutiny has thus far produced real results in reducing violence, and pairing that scrutiny with a blend of extra resources and more transparency and accountability could easily produce further gains.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic paired with ideological stubbornness from congressional Republicans and an out-to-lunch president could instead make things much worse.

A nation on the brink of disaster

The huge imminent threat on a practical level is that essentially every state and city in America is on the brink of a budget crisis because of the pandemic.

House Democrats’ proposed HEROES Act would provide them with a huge injection of funds, which could help reduce the need for cuts. Senate Republicans, however, have certainly not taken up the House’s ideas and remain particularly opposed to the state aid concept.

This is going to leave local governments with tough choices, essentially all of which bode poorly for further progress. For starters, there certainly isn’t going to be money available for extra training and staffing or to offer officers pay bumps in exchange for more and accountability.

Instead, departments are likely going to have their budgets cut. Most jurisdictions will probably try to minimize cutbacks to policing, but that’s only going to mean more severe cutbacks to things like education, housing, and health care services, which in practice is going to leave law enforcement officers dealing with a wider range of problems despite not really being the people best-suited to handle them.

Pile on top of that Trump’s consistently unhelpful rhetorical posture, the increasingly overt partisanship of local police unions, and the countervailing growing popularity of broad anti-police sentiment (as opposed to focused calls for reform) on the left, and the relative good news of the past few years could end up looking like a blip.

But nothing about that is inevitable. Congress could ride to the rescue with more money. Activist pressure on local officials could generate meaningful change in training and operational practices. And an executive branch that valued the role of law and social peace rather than seeing disorder as a chance to make political hay could return to the critical functions of oversight and dissemination of best practices that would put mayors in a position to actually deliver on what activists want.