The 'invisibilisation' of US police violence

Accurate accounts of racial violence will be essential for any kind of political reckoning. So why are statistics on the US police's use of deadly force being suppressed? 

Daniel Kato
18 December 2015

Activists stand in solidarity with Michael Brown. Light Brigading/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Many aspects of the criminal justice system increasingly rely on complex statistical techniques to increase transparency, reduce disparities and cut costs. But there is one glaring exception.

National statistics on the police's use of deadly force are notoriously inaccurate. The very agency responsible for collecting the data has said so. The FBI director has even confessed that a British newspaper holds more accurate records on lethal police force than the FBI. These inaccuracies are mainly due to police departments’ refusal to report such data and the Department of Justice’s refusal to make data collection mandatory. 

These current issues regarding data collection are reminiscent of what happened with lynchings. As with the police's use of deadly force, the exact number of lynchings is still not known and most likely never will be. Like today, it was non-government agencies that provided the most rigorous sources of information. And as with lynchings, the lack of accurate data is reflective of structural complicity in lethal violence.

Henry-smith-2-1-1893-paris-tx-2.jpg WhisperToMe:Wikimedia Commons. No rights reserved._0.jpg

Justice for Henry Smith? Lynched in Paris, Texas in 1893. WhisperToMe/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.In her book, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature, Jacqueline Goldsby examines Ida B. Wells’ important role in confronting and prevailing over the perceived banalities of lynching. Goldsby notes that most accounts of lynching were not published and were in effect suppressed, fostering "the belief that the violence bore no lasting significance, a suggestion that also worked to add to the death count" and "turned what were properly social, political and economic conflicts into spectacles erupting from the realm of irrational, private scandal."

Remaining on the level of anecdote, the omnipresent and systematic nature of racial violence was obscured. Winthrop Sheldon recognised this as far back as 1906. In an article entitled, “Shall Lynching be Suppressed, and How?” Sheldon writes:

‘Public indifference on the subject of lynching is almost universal the country over. The average American citizen, as he partakes of his morning roll and coffee and reads in his daily newspaper the sickening account of the latest lynching tragedy, is moved for the time being with a thrill of horror. He lays his paper aside, goes to his daily work, becomes absorbed in the business of money-making, and that is the end of it. The incident is closed. It is only a few days’ sensation and soon forgotten.’

Dominant accounts of lynching precluded the routine nature of its occurrence and made it seem inconsequential.  It is in this context that Goldbsy situates Wells. Wells’ tabulation of data uncovered the ideological implications of not providing a comprehensive account of lynchings.  Wells used empirical techniques to uncover a major support for "lynching’s cultural logic: white Americans’ disinterest in the deaths of black people."

Accurate accounts of racial violence will be essential for any kind of political reckoning. According to The Guardian, "such accounting is a prerequisite for an informed public discussion about the use of force by police." Inaccurate data partly explains why there is such a racial gap when it comes to perceptions of police use of force. 

In a recent poll, the following question was posed: "do you think the numbers of cases of police officers using excessive force against civilians are going up, going down or remaining about the same?" 73 percent of African Americans and 67 percent of Hispanics answered it was going up, while only 38 percent of whites did so. In other words, there is a 29 percent to 35 percent racial gap with regards to a question of empirical data. 

Similarly, in response to the question, "do you think the police are too quick to use lethal force, or do they typically only use lethal force when necessary", 82 percent of African Americans and 72 percent of Hispanics responded "too quickly", while only 34 percent of whites responded "too quickly" as well.  When there are no official, accurate reports being collected about the numbers of people killed by the police, proper public discussion is smothered. 

The decision by police departments not to publicise their data, and the decision of the Department of Justice not to make publication of this data mandatory, in tandem, effectively forestalls public scrutiny and seeks to obfuscate the potential magnitude of the problem. Inquiry into the deaths of citizens by state force is snuffed out by bureaucratic fiat. 

Saturday Mothers in search of justice for the disappeared in Istanbul. Sahan Nuhoglu:Demotix. All rights reserved..jpg

Saturday Mothers ask justice for the disappeared in Istanbul. Sahan Nuhoglu/Demotix. All rights reserved.While there are many similarities between lynchings and police use of force, there is one significant difference: lynchings mostly involved the murder of blacks by non-state actors, but today, deadly police force mostly involves the murder of blacks by officials of the state. The direct role of the state thus raises the stakes of the Goldsby critique of data collection to the level of state sovereignty. 

Political theorist Banu Bargu pointed this out in relation to the enforced disappearances of activists in Turkey. Like the disappearances that have occurred in Latin America since the mid-1960s, ‘enforced disappearance’ refers to people who are suspected to have been abducted by the state, which refuses to acknowledge the person’s fate or whereabouts, deliberately placing the victim outside the protection of the law: "that people are being ‘disappeared’ is common knowledge, yet no one knows exactly when, how or how many."

People go, but nobody knows where. For Bargu, this is indicative of how sovereignty currently operates, namely its ability to erase what was formerly visible.  According to Bargu:

"Sovereignty is not the absence of violence, discipline or domination but the ability to assert their erasability as the ultimate proof of power. The politics of erasure is not an obliteration or an ‘elimination’; rather it is an invisibilisation.  It renders bodies, violence and history, invisible; it conceals them behind the façade of law."

Although there are many differences between the disappearances occurring in Turkey and the police's use of force in the United States, they nevertheless bear comparison in terms of a lack of transparency linked to the sovereign project of invisibilisation.  Even though there are video accounts, eyewitness testimonies and documentation of specific incidents of police-perpetrated homicides, without comprehensive accounts, the issue seems to disappear in a manner comparable to what occurs in Turkey. 

To paraphrase Bargu, that people are being killed by law enforcement is common knowledge, yet, except for a few salient cases, no one knows exactly when, how or how many. The lack of any available scale enables police to hide these killings in plain sight. The invisibilisation of systematic police brutality behind the ‘façade of law’ amid the hyper-visibility of individual acts of such brutality is the ultimate token of state sovereignty.

Glaring statistical ambiguities in the context of deadly police force exacerbate a growing embrace of statistical techniques to monitor and survey the very populations being subjected to police violence. Whereas the lack of formally available data increasingly liberates police departments to do things away from the gaze of their citizenry, complex algorithms increasingly make life harder for members of that citizenry, in ways that are beyond their control. 

The lack of data about police activity reinforces the notion that successful law enforcement is the norm and the use of force is anomalous. Increased reliance on data which is stacked against people of colour reinforces a corollary notion that criminal behaviour is routine and innocence is the anomaly. 

Selective utilisation of statistics by law enforcement agencies is indicative of the ways in which poor people of colour are the victims of both an overreliance on data and, in other regards, under-reliance on data. The Janus-faced nature of statistical techniques puts a double burden on those who are primarily suspected of crime and most likely to be victims of the police's use of force, as people of colour so disproportionately are. 

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