Police are still killing unarmed Black people, the 'Hands Up Act' could do something about it

Zenobia Jeffries Warfield | 6/15/2019, 8:03 a.m.
Since the police killings of Botham Jean in Dallas and Emantic “E.J.” Bradford in Birmingham, Alabama, two months apart last ...
Protesters in downtown Brooklyn Christopher Griffith

Since the police killings of Botham Jean in Dallas and Emantic “E.J.” Bradford in Birmingham, Alabama, two months apart last fall, ongoing news coverage of unarmed Black people killed by police has mostly waned.

The street protests ended more than a year ago, but the horrific, traumatic occurrences have not.

I can’t count the number of posts I’ve scrolled past to avoid the image of an officer sitting on top of a Black child, tightly holding a plastic bag over the 12-year-old’s head. Or the number of posts screaming outrage about the officers who irresponsibly shot at a fleeing vehicle, injuring three small children. And the countless other posts of news stories about or videos of police officers harassing, assaulting, abusing, or killing a defenseless Black person.

Depending on the silo in which you exist, you’re either besieged by the terror or protected from it. I exist in the former.

And so when I saw the petition for the Hands Up Act on petiton.org, I felt a tinge of hope.

Travis Washington, its creator, says that for about two years, he’s had an idea for legislation that would hold police officers accountable for shooting innocent people. The language is pretty straightforward: “If a police officer shoots someone unarmed, they get a mandatory 15-year prison sentence.”

It would be up to legislators, the 24-year-old recent graduate school grad says, to flesh out the details, such as whether it’s the officer’s first shooting, or his or her history of misconduct, etc. He has emailed all 100 U.S. senators and heard back from two. Declining to name them, he says one was off-topic, responding with a non sequitur about crime in urban neighborhoods.

“If you’re not trying to shoot anybody unarmed, then you have nothing to worry about. It’s just that simple,” he says.

Washington, who works as a government intern in Illinois, has long considered a run for political office and had planned to wait until then to work on getting a bill passed.

But there really is no time to wait, he says. Lives are at stake.

So far this year, 390 people have been killed by police, according to a Washington Post database of police shootings. Since the newspaper began tracking that information in 2015, about 1,000 people have been killed each year by police.

Studies have found that Black people are shot by police at disproportionate rates, and unarmed victims are more likely to be Black. According to a 2018 Harvard study, Black men age 15 to 34 are nine to 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other people.

Policies that mandate trainings and body cams have not stopped the brutality. They’ve only reinforced what many already believe: Too many law enforcement officers have no respect for the lives in the Black communities they police.

What’s most troubling is that there has been little to no accountability. Since 2005, 98 police officers have been arrested, and only 35 convicted to date, according to the Police Integrity Research Group at Bowling Green State University.