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Stunning Report Reveals No One Knows How Many Police Killings There Are in U.S. Every Year

ABS_ClevelandPoliceShootingWhile commentators and leaders in the Black community across the country try to figure out how to reduce the instances of Black men being killed by the police, a devastating new report reveals that the nation actually has no idea how often police kill Americans because a huge number of police departments—including some of the largest in the country—don’t report police killings to the FBI.

The analysis by the Wall Street Journal found that more than 550 police killings were missing from the national tally, meaning the richest nation on earth seems unable to account for how often the police gun down Americans in the streets of the U.S.

It is a stunning lack of accountability and oversight on an issue that has enormous consequences for American families. If we can’t even count the number of killings of civilians, it’s unclear how the nation can make any progress anytime soon in cutting down the killings.

With the stunning barrage of police killings of Black males in recent months, this is currently the biggest story in the Black community. But the Wall Street Journal report demonstrates that the country isn’t at all serious about holding police accountable for their actions and their decision-making.

As the White House this week announced the creation of a Task Force on 21st Century Policing that’s supposed to recommend ways to promote effective crime reduction while building public trust, undoubtedly one way to build public trust is to require police departments to actually report the number of police killings they have every year.

Ironically, the president’s task force is chaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey. As the Journal report reveals, Ramsey was chief of the Washington, DC, police department while it went an entire decade without reporting police killings beginning in 1998. So the man in charge of recommending ways to increase public trust of the police was head of a force that didn’t report any killings to the federal government for a decade.

A big part of the problem is that local law enforcement agencies aren’t required to participate in the FBI’s uniform crime reporting program, which is supposed to document every homicide in the country. The local departments are supposed to send their numbers to the state, which then forward them to the FBI. But it’s kind of an honor system—the FBI crosses its fingers and hopes agencies will comply. Clearly, the honor system doesn’t work—particularly on an issue where the departments have some incentive to conceal the truth. If your department is gunning down citizens at an alarming clip, why tell the feds about it if you don’t have to?

Some localities turn over just the crime numbers, without any details, making it hard for the FBI to make any sense of them, according to the Journal.

For 35 of the 105 agencies probed by Journal reporters, their justifiable police homicides didn’t appear in the FBI records at all.

“Some agencies said they didn’t view justifiable homicides by law-enforcement officers as events that should be reported,” the Journal story says. “The Fairfax County Police Department in Virginia, for example, said it didn’t consider such cases to be an ‘actual offense,’ and thus doesn’t report them to the FBI.”

“When cops are killed, there is a very careful account and there’s a national database,” Jeffrey Fagan, a law professor at Columbia University, told the Journal. “Why not the other side of the ledger?”

In 2012, David Klinger, a former police officer who is a criminologist with the University of Missouri-St. Louis, found that there is wide variation in the number of deaths caused by police reported by the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

When the Journal requested internal records on killings by officers from the nation’s 110 largest police departments, it got back data from 105 of them. In those 105 departments, there were 1,825 police killings between 2007 and 2012, which was 47 percent more than the 1,242 that the FBI had during that period. In other words, the number of killings compiled by a bureau that’s supposed to be the nation’s premier crime-fighting organization was 583 less than that compiled by a newspaper—which got the numbers just by asking for them.

It’s also important to note that, as the Journal pointed out, “nearly all police killings are deemed by the departments or other authorities to be justifiable.”

As the nation is painfully discovering, whenever a police officer pulls out his gun and kills someone, it is considered a “justifiable homicide” by the department.

The Journal investigation found that the large majority of the nation’s roughly 18,000 law-enforcement agencies didn’t report any homicides to the FBI.

“Does the FBI know every agency in the U.S. that could report but has chosen not to? The answer is no,” Alexia Cooper, a statistician with the Bureau of Justice Statistics who studies the FBI’s data, told the Journal. “What we know is that some places have chosen not to report these, for whatever reason.”

Mike White, a criminologist at Arizona State University, said when a police department has big increases in the numbers of officer-involved killings, it can be a red flag about problems inside a police department.

“Sometimes that can be tied to poor leadership and problems with accountability,” he said.

Incredibly, among the FBI records are almost no police shootings from departments in three of the most populous states in the country—Florida, New York and Illinois.

Florida’s numbers haven’t been included in the national tally since 1996 because they don’t conform to the FBI requirements—and a spokeswoman for the state agency said in an email that Florida was “unable” to meet the FBI’s reporting requirements because its tracking software was outdated.

New York claims it isn’t able to track information about justifiable police homicides, and a spokeswoman for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services told the Journal the agency was “looking to modify our technology so we can reflect these numbers.”

The Journal says Illinois just began reporting crime statistics to the FBI in 2010 and hasn’t phased in the detailed homicide reports.

“We cannot begin adding additional pieces because we are newcomers to the federal program,” said Terri Hickman, director of the Illinois State Police’s crime-reporting program.

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7 thoughts on “Stunning Report Reveals No One Knows How Many Police Killings There Are in U.S. Every Year

  1. Bayard Michael says:

    All by design. Related in a way, too, is the fact that the NRA got laws passed that make it illegal to keep stats on gun crime.
    Please, explain to me, in light of all history, why we continue to put power in the hands of authoritarians.

  2. Today we have to reason, why such the heavy hand and the hate. Can you imagine a better world?

  3. Allen Smith says:

    There needs to be a requirement that all killings made by police should be reported to the FBI, just to ensure that there is no bias and to monitor the system. Any part of government needs to be monitored and made accountable to the public for what it does.

  4. Barry Watts says:

    "As the nation is painfully discovering, whenever a police officer pulls out his gun and kills someone, it is considered a 'justifiable homicide' by the department."

    That's not true. The Supreme Court ruling in Tennessee v. Garner determines what is and is not a justifiable homicide.

    "Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985)[1], was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that under the Fourth Amendment, when a law enforcement officer is pursuing a fleeing suspect, he or she may not use deadly force to prevent escape unless the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others."

    And while no recent data is available, the Department of Justice issued statistics from 1976-1998 that show the percentage of black victims of "justifiable homicide" at the hands of police officers has been steadily decreasing for decades.

    Is it possible that we are just seeing an uptick in awareness due to the proliferation of agenda-driven news sites and the viral nature of social media instead of an uptick in incidence?

    I honestly don't know the answer to that question, since there is apparently no recent data to compare to the old, but I suspect we are simply paying more attention to what has been going on all along.

    Due to socioeconomic factors and our obsession with guns and gun rights, we are one of the most violent societies the world has ever known. We have nearly as many guns as we have people. We can't take guns away from cops until we take guns away from everyone else, and we can't expect cops to risk their lives day after day for people they suspect of criminal activity.

    The Supreme Court and the Constitution gives law enforcement the legal authority and the obligation to enforce our laws. They have the authority to use force when people resist arrest and to use deadly force in some instances when suspects flee to avoid arrest. Rarely are people who cooperate harmed in any way, so why do so many black males resist arrest or flee?

  5. Barry Watts says:

    Because anarchy would be much worse.

  6. Barry Watts says:

    I have found more recent data from the Department of Justice and will summarize it for those who are interested, starting with the 1976-1998 data I've already mentioned.

    Policing and Homicide, 1976-98.

    Table 4 on Page 15 shows a year-by-year breakdown of gender and race of felons killed by police in justifiable homicides from 1976-1998, with the black male rate decreasing steadily from 51% in 1976 to 34% in 1998. The white male rate actually increases from 46% in 1976 to 61% in 1998.

    The most recent data is for 2003-2009 and now includes all forms of arrest-related deaths, including justifiable homicide, suicide, accidental, overdose, etc.

    Table 4 on Page 5 shows the downward trend for black victims continues in the 2003-2009 report, from 31.3% in 2003 to 29.9% in 2009.

    Black, non-Hispanic percent of reported arrest-related deaths:

    2003 31.3%
    2004 31.9%
    2005 32.2%
    2006 29.4%
    2007 33.4%
    2008 34.5%
    2009 29.9%

    White, non-Hispanic percent of reported arrest-related deaths:

    2003 45.6%
    2004 40.7%
    2005 41.1%
    2006 41.9%
    2007 38.0%
    2008 41.0%
    2009 46.6%

    Hispanic percent of reported arrest-related deaths:

    2003 17.4%
    2004 21.5%
    2005 19.7%
    2006 22.7%
    2007 21.3%
    2008 16.9%
    2009 17.8%

    The statistics clearly show a 30-year steady decrease in the percentage of black deaths from all arrest-related causes, including justifiable homicide. Could the numbers have spiked dramatically in the five years following this report? Not very likely. I'm convinced we are simply more connected and more informed than we used to be. There may be some things that can be done on the law enforcement side to minimize shootings of black suspects, but the easiest and most effective solution is to teach young people of all races to respect and cooperate with law enforcement. Make sure they know about Tennessee v. Garner and what actions on their part could result in a lawful use of deadly force by police officers.

  7. Barry Watts says:

    I was able to get statistics from the Department of Justice through 2009. I think maybe you've spent a little too much time in the conspirosphere. :p

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