Police killings recorded over the course of seven years have been under-counted by more than half, an astonishing figure, according to a new Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis.
Deaths at the hands of law enforcement, especially among Black males, have been a rallying cry for justice and reform by African-Americans across the country. This report illuminates the concerns and begs for new policies on tracking police-related shootings.
The BJS says documented killings by cops were half of what it found in its research from 2003 to 2009 and 2011.
Federal agencies track nationwide police-caused deaths through BJS’s Arrest-Related Deaths (ARD) and the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also tracks law enforcement homicides through the National Vital Statistics Report. However, this tally wasn’t included in the new analysis.
The data’s flaws make it virtually impossible to know the actual level of racial disparities in police use of force, which became a topic of national discussion following the police shooting death of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last August.
“The available data (FBI, Vital Stats, BJS) are worse than miserable,” David Klinger, a criminologist at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, wrote in an email to Vox. “They suck and no one should do any sort of analysis with them beyond using them to say that we have some floor [regarding] shootings and perhaps note that there are all sorts of circumstances involved when shootings occur.”
The Obama administration criticized the flawed statistics in recent months, unaware of their level of inaccuracy. “The troubling reality is that we lack the ability right now to comprehensively track the number of incidents of either uses of force directed at police officers or uses of force by police,” outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder said to The Hill. “This strikes many — including me — as unacceptable.”
ARD captured approximately 49 percent of people killed by police, while SHR captured 46 percent, according to the analysis. Neither system picked up about 28 percent of law enforcement homicides in the U.S., the analysis concluded, meaning more than one quarter of police-caused deaths aren’t tracked at all under ARD or SHR.
Criminal justice experts have long known that these measures are flawed. ARD collects police-caused homicides data through state reporting coordinators, but the methods of collecting data can vary from state to state, often based on technology. Sometimes the data collection does not directly involve police departments or coroner’s offices. SHR relies on reports submitted by police agencies, but these reports are voluntary—and some states, like Florida, do not participate.
Researchers at RTI International, which conducted the analysis for the Bureau, estimated more than 7,400 people were killed by police between 2003 to 2009 and 2011, or more than 900 deaths to law enforcement on average each year.
Not all of these homicides are unjustified, John Roman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, said. It is possible that in many of these cases police responded with force legitimately, perhaps when a suspect threatened the officers or others.
The fact that even both measures combined still miss 28 percent of police-caused deaths is a sign of just how incomplete these tallies are.