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Black People in Florida Much More Likely To Be Shot by Police, Investigation Confirms

Auditi Guha

The list of cases compiled by the “Why Cops Shoot” report shows that in many cases, the victims were unarmed, running away, or shot in the back. This is a pattern seen time and again across the United States.

You know about Trayvon Martin and how he died. But you probably haven’t heard of James Estes, 46, Benjamin Dykeman, 31, or Tyler Spann, 20, who were also fatally shot by police.

Their stories are now tallied in a database compiled in a Tampa Bay Times investigation showing Florida’s police shot 827 people in a six-year period. More than half were fatal. More were Black even though white people outnumber Black people 3 to 1 in Florida.

Civil rights advocates have long maintained that excessive police force negatively affects communities of color. This recognizes the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement and its demands, but law enforcement has largely disputed it. But the new report concludes that police in Florida are more likely to shoot Black people.

The findings are no different than what other databases and reports have revealed, said Chris Burbank, director of law enforcement engagement at the Center for Policing Equity and a former police chief in Salt Lake City.

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“It’s very much the same of what we have seen time and time again in other parts of the country. People of color, especially Black men between the ages of 18 and 35, are many times more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, and have force and deadly force used against them,” he said in an interview with Rewire

The database reiterates that police stop Black men more often for minor violations than serious crime—a broken taillight, not wearing a seatbelt—issues that are not a threat to the well-being of a community, Burbank said.

Estes had stolen money from the cash register of a gas station before police followed him in a car chase and shot him before he crashed in Starke; Dykeman was drunk and driving erratically when police fired four shots into the driver’s side door in Melbourne; walking back from a bar, Spann and his friend rang a deputy’s doorbell as a prank before being held at gunpoint and shot in Venice.

The list of cases compiled by the “Why Cops Shoot” report shows that in many cases, the victims were unarmed, running away, or shot in the back. This is a pattern seen time and again across the United States. 

“Police are taking a zero tolerance stance, not because of any danger but because of implicit bias,” Burbank said. “We need to ask ourselves, what [are] our expectations of police? If the process of writing a ticket does not reduce traffic accidents and arresting people does not stop them from committing future crimes, why do we keep repeating this pattern, thinking we are going to change the action?”

Burbank said it is ominous that the Trump administration has reversed gun rules, given police more powers, and is intent on building a border wall. “These will lead to more violent encounters,” he said.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement can count the number of purse snatchings, but not how many times police fired on citizens in a given year, the report states. No one keeps an accurate count of police shootings across the nation. The Justice Department announced last year that it would start to compile comprehensive data on police killings in 2017.

In its examination of 827 cases of Florida police shooting people from 2009 to 2014, the Times found that 343 of those shot were Black. Removing the cases involving violent crime or those who threatened police with guns, there were 147 questionable cases, of which 97 involved Black people. Looking at those who were unarmed, Black people outnumbered white people two to one. Black people were twice as likely to be shot after being pulled over for a traffic violation, or by reaching for something—a license, the gearshift—that police thought was a weapon.

Black people were also three times as likely to be shot while being chased by police on foot, while suspected of a minor crime like smoking pot or shoplifting, or while not committing a crime at all. Black victims were four times more likely to be shot in the back, the report found.

Take Alens Charles, 21, who was walking around his Lantana house after being locked out when a neighbor saw him and reported a possible burglary. He fell asleep in his car, unarmed, and in his own driveway. He woke up to investigating officers who shot him when he sat up.

The Times counted eight cases of Florida police shooting people allegedly committing relatively minor crimes; five of them were Black.

Rodney Mitchell, 23, was stopped in Sarasota for not wearing a seat belt. Police shot him as he reached to put the car in park, worried he had a gun. He did not.

He was one of six unarmed people shot during a traffic stop by police who mistakenly thought they were reaching for guns, the report found. Five of them were Black.

Cases like this “highlight systemic problems that lead to questionable shootings: police operations that target minority neighborhoods; dubious traffic stops and nervous cops who rush to judgment; bad decisions by police that put them in harm’s way so they feel forced to shoot,” the Times reported.

In the worst cases, police officers lied. Only once in the six years analyzed was an on-duty Florida officer charged after shooting someone. That case was thrown out of court.

While most of the shootings “seem justified,” many were “avoidable and unnecessary,” the Times noted.

From 20-year-old Dontrell Stephens shot in the back for riding his bicycle on the wrong side of the street in West Palm Beach to a 17-year-old Jeremy Hutton with Down syndrome, who took his mom’s minivan for a joyride and was shot during a low-speed car chase, the database immortalizes the lives and injuries of Black people who didn’t always make headlines.

“What I hope people continue to realize is that racism doesn’t change via talk, it changes via action,” Ashley Yates, a prominent Black Lives Matter movement organizer, said in an email to Rewire. “It’s great to study bias but we have enough dead Black bodies as our data. What we need now is the action.”

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