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US policing desperately needs reform

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In 2012 we marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech. Although America has come a long way in terms of racial equality since that day in 1962, highlighted by the fact that they have their first black president. However there is still a long way to go, especially in terms of attitudes towards African-Americans within institutions such as the police force.

On the morning of Saturday 4th April 50-year old African-American Walter Scott was making his way to an auto parts store, when he was pulled over by North Charleston police officer Michael Slager for a non-functioning brake light.

A video from Slager's dashcam showed him walking to Scott's car before returning to his police car, at which point Scott fled his car with Slager making chase. In this chase Slager fired his Taser at Scott, with Scott being hit once.

When Scott ran again Slager fired at him eight times with his handgun, hitting him five times, according to a Scott's family lawyer, with at least one bullet entering his heart. After firing the rounds, Slager told the dispatcher "shots fired and the subject is down, he took my Taser".

In the report of the shooting Slager had said that he had feared for his life after Scott had taken his Taser, and he shot at Scott because he felt threatened.

However an eyewitness to the shooting filmed the event showing that Scott had not in fact taken Slager's Taser and that Scott was "just trying to get away" from the Taser. In an interview with The Today Show the eyewitness, Feidin Santana, said Scott "never grabbed the Taser off the police. He never got the Taser".

Although this is quite clearly a disturbing and disgraceful event, it is not shocking. African-Americans being shot by policemen is an all too common occurrence. According to the US Bureau of Statistics there were 2,931 "arrest-related deaths" from 2003 to 2009, 41.7 per cent of the casualties were Caucasian while 31.7 per cent of casualties were African-American. While these statistics alone don't seem that remarkable, when you factor in that African-Americans make up just 13 per cent of the US population, it means that a policeman is thrice as likely to kill an African-American as they are a white person. The statistics are even more damning when the focus is on 15 to 19 year olds, with African-Americans in this age bracket being 21 times more likely to be shot at and killed by a policeman than a Caucasian of the same age, according to ProPublica.

There may be some justification for the higher "arrest-related deaths" of African-Americans compared with Caucasians, due to the fact that African-Americans are disproportionately more likely to commit crimes with them carrying out 38 per cent of murders compared to 31.1 per cent for white people. However in a vast number of these "arrest-related deaths", such as Walter Scott, the 'criminal' posed no threat to society. How on earth can a person being pulled over for a non-functioning brake light be perceived as a threat to society? In cases like this it's hard to see how the murder can be anything other than racially motivated. Even when the 'criminal' may be predicted to pose a threat to society there has to be a better way to deal with the danger than just shooting at them. For a policeman to ever feel the need to use a gun it should be as a last resort. Sadly a lot of the time it does not seem as if this is the case.

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