'Just another incident'
While incomplete, the data available, both through individual departments self-reporting and from independent researchers, do show a significant problem.
Even when unarmed, Hispanic people are twice as likely as white citizens and African-Americans are more than five times as likely as their white counterparts to be killed in a police interaction, according to 2015 data from "Mapping Police Violence."
Further investigation by the Washington Post has found that this racial disparity exists even when crime rates of a neighborhood or socioeconomic background is taken into account – minorities are more likely to experience aggression, especially fatal police aggression, when unarmed than non-minorities.
C. Matthew Hawkins recalled his own experience while running errands after teaching a class at the University of Pittsburgh in 2008.
While he was walking, a police car pulled up, and the officer got out to question him about a burglary that had occurred nearby.
"It was clear that he had made up his mind that I was the one had committed this burglary," Hawkins recalled. He said that he tried to comply with the officer's directions, even though the officer was tense and was clearly angry.
However, he also was confused and concerned that, being so close to the university and to his parish, someone would walk by and think that he committed a crime. While all these thoughts were going through his mind, he hesitated in response to one of the officer's demands.
"I froze – it wasn't a decision not to cooperate, it was being caught in the moment and not being able to respond." Hawkins hesitation made the cop more anxious, and the officer reached for his gun.
As this was unfolding, the radio crackled, updating the officer that the suspect in the case was actually a 5-foot-7-inch white male – not a 6-foot tall African American.
"He just turned to me and said, 'I'm just doing my job,' and drove off," Hawkins said.
Hawkins is grateful that on that day he did not become another statistic – another young African-American man shot or arrested for non-compliance. He said this was not the first time he or his African-American friends have been threatened by police officers. For instance, he was confronted by swearing officers wielding billy clubs while reading in a park during a public festival as a teen.
"It still has an emotional jolt every time something like that happens," he said. "This is just another incident of that."
But there are things that can be done to combat these kinds of interactions, Hawkins stressed, pointing to other memories of being treated in a dignified and respectful way by police officers.
He advocated that parishes in particular work to "build bridges" in their communities, especially in communities that are experiencing changing demographics. "I think it's important for people to work together," he said, pushing for parishes to engage in projects together, and that such processes help "to break down stereotypes that all the training sessions in the world wouldn't have accomplished."
Encountering the issue
"My father was a policeman, so I have a certain degree of sympathy for the police, but his view always was: Show me these incidents and what I'll show you back is either 'poor or lack of training'," said Robert Destro, law professor at The Catholic University of America and the founding director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law and Religion.
Destro suggested that most examples of police aggression can be traced back to poor training or poor oversight and management of police departments. He pointed to the issue of racial profiling, noting that a profile is a valuable tool for police officers trying to solve a crime, but when a profile is based on race alone, it is inadequate and problematic.
These issues, he said, are often "the fault of upper echelons," who don't successfully manage police training and community relations, allowing tensions between the community and the department to grow and fester.
"When you're looking at this from a Catholic Social Teaching perspective it's a question of solidarity and subsidiarity," he added, noting that churches have a role to play in getting communities together. "It's only in the local community that you can break down the 'us and them' into an 'us'."
He also commented that while there may be nationwide trends involved, the departments and communities involved each have a distinct, unique character, and thus solution, to the problems they are facing. "The police are not an amorphous entity – there is a local police force where you live," he said.
Destro urged Catholics as well to take action on this issue in their communities. "We shouldn't be waiting until there's a crisis," he stated. "These problems have been around for a long time"
A national examination of conscience
"This has been a long-term, ongoing relationship of African-Americans with the police," said Gloria Purvis, a radio host for EWTN and a representative of the National Black Catholic Congress.
Purvis said that this breakdown in relations impacts "the average African-American person," those who have not broken any laws.
"Your encounters with police shouldn't end in death if you're not doing something that's actively putting the lives of others at risk or is in the active commission of a crime," she said, adding that it should concern Catholics that "the value of a human life can become so diminished, even on a whim."
"There are a lot of things that go into a police encounter that we don't know," she acknowledged, noting that she has family members who are part of the law enforcement community.
"But, what we do know as Catholics is that each person is made in the image and likeness of God and their lives are worthy of dignity and respect, and we shouldn't cheer or defend their lives being taken because they weren't sufficiently compliant."
"That's not Catholic," she stressed. "Whenever there are non-lethal means to subdue someone and keep society safe, we use it."
In discussing the complex and often tense issues surrounding police violence and race relations, Purvis stressed that Catholics should take an honest, faith-first approach. She encouraged Catholics reading secular news sources on these issues to use "the lens of faith" rather than one's political views as a framework.
"We can't fix a problem if we don't even state that there's one that exists and then examine it," Purvis held. "It's sort of like we're going through a national examination of conscience regarding this particular issue."