Rexdale Henry spent the last five nights of his life in the Neshoba County Jail in Philadelphia, Mississippi. At 10:00 a.m. on July 14, he was found dead in his cell; 30 minutes earlier, according to the official police report, he was alive. The cause of his death has not been determined, and even though an official autopsy has been conducted, his family and friends have paid for an independent autopsy. Results have not been publicly released from either autopsy as of this writing.Henry, 53, was arrested on July 9 for “failure to pay a fine,” according to records. Many writers are noting the several surface similarities between this case and the more prominent one of Sandra Bland, the young woman who died in police custody in Texas after a weekend in jail: both were arrested for seemingly minor infractions, both spent several days in custody, and both died suddenly and out of police sight mere minutes after police had interacted them. Both were community activists. Mr. Henry was a civil rights activist and a leader in the Choctaw community; he had stood for election for the Choctaw Tribal Council this month.
Ms. Bland’s arrest was recorded on the arresting officer’s cruiser dashcam; there is no similar recording of the interaction between Mr. Henry and the arresting officer. All that is known about Mr. Henry is that he was arrested, held in jail for several days, and died. Last fall, a man died in the same jail under similarly murky circumstances.
We do not know what killed Mr. Henry, yet his story resembles those of many other Native Americans who have died in police custody in recent memory, like Christina Tahhahwah. Writers and activists are starting to use what we know of his story to shine a light into a dark part of our nation’s law enforcement psyche: the top two racial groups most likely to be killed by law enforcement are Native Americans and black Americans.
The numbers take some explaining. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “from 1999 through 2011, American law enforcement officers killed 4,531 people, 96 percent by firearms and 96 percent of them men.” Per million persons, 1.2 Americans of any race and any age will die at police hands in any given year. Just to be clear, this study does not draw a distinction between “justified homicides” or examples of injustice; these are simply the raw numbers. If someone dies at the hands of police, the death is included in the data. But look at this list of the rates of death by law enforcement broken down by ethnicity and age:
That is a terrible top ten list. If you are young and black or young and Native American, the numbers are very different than 1.2 out of a million. The rates are far larger. Not one of the ethnic groups most likely to die in an encounter with police is white or Asian.
Native Americans, who comprise 0.8 percent of the population, comprise 1.9 percent of police killings. In plainer terms, less than one percent of the nation’s population sees almost two percent of all of this nation’s killings by police. Every year.
African Americans make up a much larger portion of the population: 13 percent, and that group comprises 26 percent of all police killings. That is unspeakable, and it must be spoken. Loudly. Repeatedly. In “Who Are the Police Killing,” the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice puts it starkly, “Law enforcement kills African Americans at 2.8 times the rate of white non-Latinos, and 4.3 times the rate of Asians.”
The overall rate of police killings—again, both those labeled as justified and not justified—is far smaller than it was just 40 years ago. These smaller numbers reveal a system that is profoundly skewed against certain groups, however.
Associates with Syracuse University’s Cold Case Justice Initiative are helping Mr. Henry’s family. Syracuse University law professor Janis McDonald wrote this on their behalf last week: “At a time when the nation is focused on the terrible circumstances of the brutal death of Sandra Bland, it is critical to expose the many ways in which Black Americans, Native Americans and other minorities are being arrested for minor charges and end up dead in jail cells.”
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