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The 'invisibilisation' of US police violence

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.

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 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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