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The Value of Human Life: Acknowledging and Addressing Deaths at the Hands of Police

The Value of Human Life: Acknowledging and Addressing Deaths at the Hands of Police

According to The Guardian’s investigation, the deaths of Isiah Hampton, 19, in New York City, and Quandavier Hicks, 22, in Cincinnati on Wednesday, brought the number of people killed by police in the United States in 2015 to 500. The total number includes both unarmed victims and encounters when responding violent altercations. Through a project called The Counted, The Guardian is using reports and crowd-sourcing to keep track of American deaths at the hands of law enforcement. The Counted keeps track of data such as the names, races, ages and other information about those who have died.

The lack of official, federal reporting of the number of people who die in police custody each year represents a significant obstacle to addressing the problem. Fortunately, in late December of 2014, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act. The law mandates that all states receiving federal criminal justice assistance grants must report, by gender and race, all deaths that occur while people are in law enforcement custody- from arrest to release. Additionally, the law requires the collected data to be reported to the US Attorney General for analysis. The RAC was proud to advocate for the Death in Custody Reporting Act and is optimistic that it will increase accountability, transparency and trust between law enforcement and communities.

Around the country, we are beginning to see changes in the way that deaths in custody are being handled. Just this week, Michael Thomas Slager was charged with murder for shooting and killing a black man in North Charleston, S.C. after a routine traffic stop. The case garnered national attention because it was entirely caught on film. This graphic footage was a turning point in the case and the Justice Department announced that the FBI, the Civil Rights division and the South Carolina U.S. Attorney’s Office will be investigating the shooting.

In Cleveland, community leaders announced this week that they will not wait for prosecutors to decide whether or not to file charges against the police officers involved in the death of 12 year-old Tamir Rice last year. Instead, they have invoked a seldom-used law to request directly that a judge file murder charges against the involved officers. This law allows residents to request an arrest without approval from the police or prosecutors. It is difficult to predict the outcome as there is little precedent in such a high profile case. Despite this, local leaders chose to act because they are skeptical of the county prosecutor and fear the outcomes of similar cases, including that of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

While these tragic incidents are not representative of the work of all police officers, they nonetheless are part of a trend that our country must acknowledge and address. We must create greater transparency and accountability to repair relationships between law enforcement and communities of color, and to do that, we will need everyone’s help. Laws like the Death in Custody Reporting Act will help get us closer to this goal. But, we must not forget to lift up the many stories of police officers who work to protect all members of their community and who put their lives on the line every day to ensure public safety. We must thank police officers for the difficult, and often impossible, work that they do.

As Reform Jews, we are guided by our texts that tell us, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). We are taught that the word tzedek is not only repeated for emphasis, but also to tell us that we must be just in our pursuit of justice. In partnership with communities of color, we must continue to work for structural reforms and systemic changes that will save lives and protect all people.


These prayers, reflections, and resources can be a guide and inspiration for discussing the situations in McKinney, Texas, Baltimore, Ferguson, and other communities as well as discussing racial inequality and the modern civil rights movement in your congregations, communities and in your own homes.


Published: 6/11/2015

Categories: Social Justice