Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporters are in the midst of an important series on fatal shootings by police.
Arkansas — and the U.S. — need routine compilation of police use of force. Statistics are one way to identify outliers in police practice.
With extensive FOI requests, the newspaper’s reporters, Amanda Claire Curcio and Hunter Field, determined that Arkansas police had shot 135 people in six years, 67 of them fatally. During that same time, three police officers were fatally wounded and 31 reported being fired at.
In an installment today, the newspaper focused on the fact that 53 of those killed by police were black men. They made up 73.9 percent of unarmed suspects shot by police while black men comprise only 7.5 percent of the state population. Only one woman was killed by police.
The figures are likely incomplete. One prosecutor, Fletcher Long of Forrest City, refused to participate in the project. Another, Andy Riner of Mena, objected, first claiming that he viewed all police fatal shootings as homicides and they remained open in perpetuity. An open investigation is one of the exemptions for disclosure under the open records law. He eventually supplied some records.
It’s a rarity when a police shooting is not found to be justified (and rare to see a conviction when wrongdoing is alleged). Still, the figures alone don’t stand as proof of either predisposition to use of force or racial bias. But a shooting can be justified even if it might have been avoidable. The Democrat-Gazette series, for example, includes the story of a prosecutor-justified shooting that followed a police effort to forcibly remove a man from his home for arrest on a misdemeanor warrant. Might there have been a better way to approach that particular arrest? (And others involving mentally ill people, others have noted.) Accountability in the form of easy to access full public record seems a good thing. But the legislative trend is running against accountability this session.