Death by Police

More than 500 people have been shot and killed by officers in America so far this year. We know, because the internet is counting.

Police in riot gear stand guard after deploying tear gas to disperse protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. (Adrees Latif / Reuters)

Updated on July 7 at 10:05 a.m. ET

It wasn’t until recently that it became easy to find a number to go with the gruesome reality that black people—and black men in particular—live with every day: the ever-present threat of police violence.

Police officers fatally shot nearly 1,000 people last year, according to The Washington Post’s ongoing count. Halfway through 2016, police have shot and killed 506 more. “Unarmed black men are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire,” the Post wrote last year.

And though it seems overly clinical to talk about hundreds of civilian deaths as a number; there’s power in knowing that number. The Washington Post’s impressive tracking work represents the professionalization of an effort that first bubbled up on individual blogs and among smaller advocacy groups.  

Of course, this is just one count. The Guardian’s tally is 561 deaths, including 526 shootings. And that discrepancy suggests that as important as these efforts have been, in the absence of a comprehensive federal effort to track such shootings, the full scope of the problem remains unknown.

Still, attempts to track police shootings are meaningful. Coupled with video footage of police violence against black people—grainy, raw, and deeply disturbing in ways that are foreign to many white people but all too familiar to people of color—new technology is forcing Americans to confront life-and-death realities of inequality in the United States.

And as technology helps drive a national conversation about race and police violence, much of that conversation is taking place in digital forums: in tweets and in Facebook posts, and in self-published essays. “It’s the incessant threat of daily life,” the journalist Justin Ellis wrote in an essay in 2014, “the feeling that at any given moment, in any day at any time, everything I have could get snatched away as I’m going through the motions of being me.”

Black Lives Matter has organized its movement largely on social media, which is also where videos of police shootings are published and shared. The larger question is what happens now? Heightened awareness of a drumbeat of killings—including two this week—leaves many people feeling angry, exhausted, and powerless. Counting the number of dead and watching videos of them die doesn’t prevent it from happening again. In one in five fatal shootings, the names of the police officer responsible is never disclosed. Even when they are, many officers face no consequences.

Yet there may be reason for hope. Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and a scholar who has done much thinking and writing about online activism, has written about the importance of monitoring what he calls the equitability of activism in both the digital and physical realms.

“‘Monitoring’ sounds passive, but it’s not—it’s a model for channeling mistrust to hold institutions responsible, whether they’re the institutions we’ve come to mistrust or the new ones we’re building today,” he wrote in a blog post last year. “When the Black Panthers were founded in Oakland, CA in the late 1960s, they were an organization focused on combatting police brutality. They would follow police patrol cars and when officers got out to make an arrest, the Panthers—armed, openly carrying weapons they were licensed to own—would observe the arrest from a distance, making it clear to officers that they would intervene if they felt the person arresting was being harassed or abused, a practice they called ‘Policing the Police.’”

This kind of monitorial citizenship, he says, benefits hugely from technology—whether it involves building a dedicated website for counting fatal shootings by police, forming an organization to videotape crime, or leveraging digital networks to share footage of a deadly police confrontation. As Zuckerman puts it in his blog post, “it allows many people working together to monitor situations that would be hard for any one individual to see.”

“The one stance that’s not acceptable as far as I’m concerned,” he added, “is that of disengagement, of deciding that you’re powerless and remaining that way.”