A Real American Horror Story

Giulianna Di Lauro
Giulianna Di Lauro

He had his hands up the entire time and walked slowly, like a street cat being cornered by a pack of wild wolves.   He was trugueño, indio, and most likely Latino. The men cornering him wore pressed uniforms adorned with badges. His clothes sagged sadly over his small frame. Three voices are heard in the background; 2 women and one younger, perhaps a pre-teenage girl. They are speaking in Spanish, with an accent that could possibly be attributed to El Salvador. An older female voice is heard mumbling in the background, something about how the man must be doing something bad. The woman recording is annoyed. “Don’t you see what’s happening? He wasn’t doing anything. He was just walking.” “Don’t get so close!” the young female voice reprimands the woman filming. The fear in her voice is evident. “Why are they doing this?” the woman asks. “Why are they doing this?” she repeats again with panic and confusion. “This is what they used to do in my country. Once the police turn on its people…” And then sounds that haunt me to this day.

“What are you doing!? You’re killing him! Why are you killing him!? STOP! STOP!” The young girl’s voice is heard over the thunder of shots, yelling in English. There is no longer fear in her voice, only anger and disbelief. The shots continue pounding into the immobile corpse. “Why are you killing him!? What did he do to you? Are you stupid!? Why are you [expletive] killing him!? You guys aren’t worth [expletive]! If we wanted to die we would call you!” The video ends.

The paragraphs above are not a word for word transcript but a recreation based off my memory. I saw this video on Facebook several months ago and I have spent the last two weeks frantically searching for it in order to share it so others can see it for themselves. It’s one thing to describe this incident in words, and a completely different one to actually see it. I’m not ashamed to admit tears liberally ran down my face as the clip came to an end. I had just witnessed a man murdered in cold blood by the people we trust to protect us. Despite warnings the video was continuously and mysteriously being taken down, I figured someone would report it and it would garner the enormous media attention it deserves. I was wrong.

There is the probability the video was a fake and that is why it was removed.   My gut, which is rarely wrong, tells me otherwise. What I saw, unfortunately, was very real.

This is a reality that only in recent years has received significant media coverage and political attention. In the United States, police officers are killing people at a chilling rate. According to a report by Think Progress, U.S. police officers killed more people this past March than U.K. Officers have in the entire 20th century. Almost equally disturbing is that U.S. statistics are missing hundreds of people. The FBI’s ‘justifiable homicides’ tally is often cited and referred to as one of the most accurate official counts of police homicides. A Department of Justice (DOJ) report produced in collaboration with RTI International revealed that data used in the FBI figures for 2003 through 2009 and 2011 covered 46% of officer involved homicides, at best. In other words, less than half of police homicides have been accounted for in the FBI’s data for the years covered in the DOJ report. One of the reasons for the lack of reliable data is that law enforcement agencies are not obliged to send this information to the FBI.

In 2000, Congress passed a law making it mandatory for local law enforcement agencies to report every police homicide. The law expired in 2006 and was never reauthorized. The high profile murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garnir, Tamir Rice and many others built momentum for Congress to pass yet another law on December 2014 requiring local law enforcement agencies to submit a record of every instance of police homicide as well as the gender, race, age and other details surrounding the death. This is a welcome step, but more should be done. Across the country, people are calling for all police officers in possession of firearms to be equipped with body cameras. House Democrats have introduced legislation that would make this mandatory and the bill is now under review by the Criminal Justice Committee. If you believe this would create a positive difference, please sign a petition expressing your support of the legislation.

Aside from installing body cameras on officers, law enforcement training needs to be supplemented. The truth is that the majority of cops shoot suspects out of fear, not racism (that is not to say that racial biases don’t exist and contribute to the issue). The most pronounced part of their training is to make it home alive after their shift. Officers are shown dashcam videos and footage of other officers being beaten and murdered by suspects and are told the cops being attacked are responsible for their fate, not their attackers. ‘If you aren’t vigilant enough, if you hesitate, that too could be your fate’ is the message that gets very deeply ingrained in their psyche. Losing your life by hesitating has far higher consequences than shooting an innocent person by mistake. This is a legitimate concern, but the truth is that the likelihood of officers getting harmed in the line of duty are very low compared to how often they interact with civilians. Noting officers interact with civilians around 63 million times each year and applying that to FBI statistics on law enforcement officers killed and assaulted on duty, police officers were assaulted in about 0.09 percent of all interactions, injured in some way in 0.02 percent of interactions, and were feloniously killed in 0.00008 percent of interactions. This doesn’t mean officers should drop their guard. However, taking this into account during trainings and while on duty would be beneficial and would put things into perspective. There are other issues that deserve just as much attention and must also be clarified in trainings, such as the racial bias that makes cops view men of color as a bigger risk and relying more on non-lethal weapons when dealing with suspects.

Ultimately, we are not each other’s enemies. The everyday person understands and is grateful for the risks police officers take to protect us. However, that doesn’t mean we should look the other way when excessive force is used. It does not mean police officers have the right to beat and murder suspects because they look suspicious. They are here to enforce the law, not to stand above it. Too many innocent lives have been unjustifiably taken by officers of the law and it is time we put mechanism in place in order to ensure the end of this trend.

Giulianna Di Lauro is a Venezuelan American who is passionate about progressive social change.  She studied International Affairs and Politics in the Netherlands and currently works in Policy Research in Washington D.C.