As news of police officers killing unarmed Black citizens have continued to make national headlines, one myth has also started to spread along with the media coverage—the amount of police killings hasn’t gotten worse, there is simply more coverage than ever before.
It suggests that the quality of policing isn’t actually getting worse and that citizens aren’t in any more danger now than they would have been years ago.
A new analysis may be poking a serious hole in that theory.
The Washington Post released a disconcerting report that found police are actually shooting and killing more citizens today than federal reports have indicated in the past and, to make matters worse, there are still very few policies in place to fully keep track of such information.
According to the Post’s analysis, police in the U.S. have already killed 385 people during the first five months of 2015, which means they are killing people at a higher rate than has ever been reported over the past decade.
The report insists that numbers equate to more than two people a day being fatally shot by police, despite federal reports that suggested the number was closer to one person a day.
It’s important to note that this number, because it’s looking at fatal shootings, wouldn’t even include the tragic deaths of citizens like Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. Both of these Black men were killed while in police custody but were killed by means other than a shooting.
But even the numbers of shootings alone are enough to spark serious concerns about policing efforts today both because it pulled back the curtain on trigger-happy cops and because a media outlet had to be the one to provide such statistics.
The Post’s report, which is believed to be a far more accurate count than numbers that were provided by federal officials in the past, nearly doubled the amount of deaths tallied by the federal government.
Since police departments aren’t actually required to report that information, there have long been frustrations about the challenges of trying to accurately measure police brutality in America today.
“We are never going to reduce the number of police shootings if we don’t begin to accurately track this information,” Jim Bueerman, president of the Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving law enforcement, told Reuters.
The analysis even broke down the deaths based on demographics such as gender and race.
Despite the fact that Black citizens make up a significantly smaller percent of the total population, they still accounted for a rather large amount of the police fatalities.
Since January 1, 171 white men were fatally killed and 100 Black men were killed. Meanwhile, 54 Hispanic men were killed.
As for women, they were fatally shot at far lower rates and only 20 have been fatally shot so far in 2015.
Out of all those who had been fatally shot, nearly 50 were unarmed and 13 were carrying a toy rather than an actual weapon.
The vast majority, however, did turn out to be armed with a gun, knife or some other object that could have been used as a weapon. The report did not indicate if the item was actually being used to threaten the officers at the time of the shooting.
These numbers are allowing activists to do something that has been nearly impossible to do in the past—more accurately quantify police killings to help push for the need for criminal justice reform.
The fact that such information is just now becoming available, however, is something that has long frustrated FBI Director James Comey.
Back in April he told reporters that it was “ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by the police last week, last month, last year.”
Perhaps that is the most frightening truth behind the information.
There is no guarantee this information will be accurately updated and if it is it will take hours of intensive research by reporters rather than officials at the federal level take the initiative to track the information that’s completely necessary if anyone is seriously interested in reforming the criminal justice system.
And fatal police killings aren’t the only numbers that are missing from federal databases.
“There are estimates, but with [65 million] people in the FBI criminal record database, we have no systematic knowledge of their demographics,” Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Harvard told The Atlantic.
In other words, nobody is keeping an accurate record of the racial makeup of arrests.
And while prison statistics have kept up with the current size of the overall population of people in jail, it has failed to track more specific details such as the demographic makeup of those in solidarity confinement.
According to Western, there are “estimates” available but “no official count nationwide.”
Which means if there are any serious disparities in who is being placed in solitary confinement, an experience that has left many prisoners with permanent mental scars, it would be incredibly easy to sweep that trend under the rug and out of the public’s attention.
Unfortunately, that’s still not the end of the massive gaps in data that keep the public unaware of what really happens in America’s criminal system and inside the country’s quickly expanding collection of prisons.
“Another major gap in prison statistics is the number of non-sexual assaults behind bars,” The Atlantic’s Matt Ford reported. “Although Congress mandated the collection of sexual assault statistics with the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2002, prisons are not required to report ordinary assaults to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.”
Yet again, some information is available but its accuracy is questionable and reach of the data is limited.
What this allows, according to University of Pennsylvania political science professor Marie Gottschalk, is the opportunity to continue perpetuating the stereotypes about prisons and the people who fill those cells.
“[If] we’re just collecting inmate-on-inmate data, or just rapes and sexual assaults between inmates, it kind of feeds into those stereotypes, and it ignores the huge amount of violence that’s actually done by staff inside of facilities,” Gottschalk told The Atlantic.
Those who have been behind bars, however, have been left with scarring stories of inhumane police brutality while in custody. Some of these stories do get out and reach the public eye, but they are still a part of a narrative that suggests such attacks are rare, which very well could be far from the truth.
If anyone hopes to do anything about it, however, the system’s flawed data collection has already made it an uphill battle.
After all, the best way to push for widespread reform is to prove, beyond any doubt, that there is a problem. Seems pretty difficult to do that when there are so many holes in the data needed to make that case.