Part 1—The running of the (pit) bulls: Compared to other developed nations, the United States has an extremely large number of fatal shootings by police.
In fairness, we also have an extremely large number of fatal shootings by people who aren’t police.
In Chattanooga last week, for example, we had one fatal shooting by police. It was preceded by five fatal shootings of the other kind.
Most people would say that last week's fatal police shooting in Chattanooga was justified. In the last few years, we’ve all seen videotape of other fatal shootings by police which plainly were not.
How often do such shootings occur? To what extent are such shootings motivated by race?
The latter question has received a lot of attention in the past several years. In a break with our basic traditions, the Washington Post is even trying to assemble some basic data about this important topic!
Those data can be found at this site, which we discussed last week.
As we noted last Thursday, the Post is attempt to create a record of every fatal shooting by police in the whole country this year. The shootings are categorized by race, by gender, by age.
The large majority of the deceased were armed, the Post is reporting. As of this morning, the Post was reporting 524 fatal shootings by police in the United States this year. That includes last week’s fatal shooting in Chattanooga, the ninth such shooting in Tennessee this year.
These fatal shootings have produced a great deal of commentary from the liberal/progressive world in the past several years. So have a set of fatal non-police shootings, including the nine shootings in Charleston last month.
According to widespread reports, publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book was moved up to address “the moment” created by those events. The book is producing widespread discussion.
All week, we plan to discuss some of the ways the liberal world has discussed those fatal shootings by police (and, sometimes, by others). With apologies, we’re going to start with an unconnected observation we made long ago.
It was the summer of 87 and the pit bulls were really running! On June 20, Peter Jennings anchored a full-length report on the subject on World News Tonight:
JENNINGS (6/20/87): There's been another report today about somebody being attacked by a pit bull. There have been a lot of such reports lately and they have made many people nervous.Were pit bulls really “biting and killing humans more often than ever before?” We can’t tell you that.
The Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance today which makes it easier for the city to pick up and destroy vicious dogs. The question is, Where does the fault lie? With the dogs or with the owners who train them?
ABC's Ken Kashiwahara is in California.
KASHIWAHARA: Pound for pound, they are considered the most aggressive and tenacious fighting dogs in the world, with jaws so powerful they can tear through a chain link fence. Now, from one end of the country to the other, pit bulls are biting and killing humans more often than ever before.
With the wrong person, this is a loaded keg of dynamite. So far this year, five people have been killed by pit bulls...
According to Kashiwahara, five people had been killed by pit bulls that year—but this is a very big country. At any rate, Kashiwahara continued along with an alarming, attention-grabbing report.
He described a two-year-old California boy who “was literally torn to pieces.” Also, a case in Ohio “where pit bulls dragged a 67-year-old man from the top of a car and killed him.”
Pit bull stories were big that summer in the New York Times. On July 12, Peter Applebome did a news report about the “steady flow of horror stories” concerning the savage dogs.
“Angered and frightened by a steady flow of horror stories about pit bull attacks on people, many cities and states are rushing to enact legislation to ban or regulate the animals,” Applebome wrote. “Officials who work with animals say it is the most concentrated legal assault on a specific breed they can recall.”
Two days later, an AP report appeared in the Times under this headline: “Police Shoot Pit Bull Terrier After It Attacks 2 Dobermans.” On July 19, another lengthy report described the growing calls around the country for pit bull legislation. The report focused on “the reported 33 pit bull attacks this year in Connecticut.”
On July 20, a headline in the Times said this: “Pit Bull Attacks An Off-Duty Officer.” On August 2, the editors finally spoke.
“While all-out bans are difficult to enforce, there is ample reason to discourage pit bull ownership,” the Times said in its editorial. “According to the Humane Society, pit bulls were responsible for 21 of the 29 deaths from dog attacks in the United States since 1983. Those figures can’t be ignored.”
Journalistically, pit bull attacks were big that year. And then, if our recollection is accurate, the running of the pit bull stories basically disappeared, rather suddenly, at some point.
We recall this because, as a comedian, we briefly tried to do some jokes about the reasons why the pit bulls may have suddenly decided to stop their incessant biting. The jokes didn’t last, but the episode stuck in our mind as an example of a real journalistic phenomenon—the phenomenon of selective presentation.
What was the truth about the pit bulls? We have no idea. But in March 1991, a news report in the Times announced that the city of New York was repealing restrictions it had enacted just two years before.
Alessandra Stanley did the report. Some “creeping Dowdism” was perhaps on display as she recalled the way Mayor Koch had compared the widely-feared dog to the great white shark.
Stanley pondered canine rights. Headline included, this is the way she began:
STANLEY (3/12/91): New York Acts to Lift Pit Bull ControlsStanley was having some fun that day. At any rate, the city’s discriminatory stigmatization hadn’t lasted real long. 67-year-old men on the roofs of cars be damned!
The pit bull terrier, widely feared and, in the eyes of owners, maligned and misunderstood, had a taste of sweet vindication yesterday.
The New York City Board of Health took a major step toward repealing restrictions on pit bull terriers that had been written into the health code in 1989, when Edward I. Koch was mayor. The restrictions followed a rash of highly publicized pit bull bitings that led Mr. Koch, who likened the breed to "a great white shark," to try to ban the dogs from the city.
The repeal is expected to be enacted formally in April. It would be a benchmark in canine constitutional rights.
The Board of Health acted in response to a State Supreme Court preliminary injunction, issued in September 1989 against the pit bull health code regulations after the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other opponents complained that the rules were discriminatory. The board approved a public hearing on April 22 to consider removing the regulations.
Lisa B. Weisberg, a lawyer for the A.S.P.C.A., said the organization had opposed the pit bull section of the health code because it was "breed specific" and "deprived owners of due process and equal protection."
Last year the City Council passed the Dangerous Dog Regulation and Protection Law. The law, which took effect in January, allows the Department of Health, after a hearing, to impose a number of strict measures on any dog that threatens or injures a person or other animal without provocation.
The pit bull, in other words, is no longer to be singled out and stigmatized as a breed.
How dangerous were pit bulls in 1987? How dangerous are they today? We have no idea. But as with the telegenic shark of the sea, so too with the bull of dry land—it’s easy to create waves of fear if newspapers, and now news channels, go out of their way to memorialize every bite.
The United States is a very large country. Whatever you want to talk about, you can probably find it happening somewhere pretty much every day—or at least every week, or possibly every month.
Whatever it is you’re focused on, you can likely create the sense that it’s happening all the time. In the process, you might create some misconceptions about a phenomenon which is both real and important.
Have we liberals been doing something like that as we discuss police shootings? To some extent, we’d have to say the answer is yes.
Police misconduct does occur. Does it happen as often as we keep suggesting?
We’ll examine that question all week. This will lead us to a discussion of Coates’ widely-discussed new book, which we’re still waiting to get.
We’ve been watching the interviews on TV. We’re eager to read the full book.
Tomorrow: Chris Hedges, counting the hours