A Big Problem: No-One Knows How Many Citizens Are Being Killed By Cops

Image of cop threatening to shoot peaceful protesters in Ferguson via The Free Thought Project

Image of cop threatening to shoot peaceful protesters in Ferguson via The Free Thought Project

We live in a country that keeps track of nearly everything. We’ve created national databases to track all kinds of information, from our kid’s immunizations to our own lifetime earnings. Credit reporting agencies watch every penny we spend, and they count every half-penny we owe. We can track marriages, divorces, births and deaths. We keep statistics on race, culture, gender, migration and immigration, who’s working, who’s not working, who’s going to school and who’s earned what kind of college degree. If someone steals a loaf of bread, gets busted smoking a joint or even gets a minor traffic ticket, there are databases for those things too. Yet, even with all of that, there’s one thing we’re apparently are not tracking of: how many of our own citizens are being killed each year, by police. I’d say that’s a problem.

While officially, the federal government maintains that approximately 400 US citizens are “justifiably killed by police’in the line of duty’ each year, the actual number of police homicides deemed to be ‘justifiable’ is undoubtedly much higher. Worse, there is no reliable statistical information available on the actual number of police killings which are later determined to be ‘unjustified’  This is due to a number of problems and inconsistencies when it comes to how information about officer involved killings is (or is not) reported.

Fivethirtyeight.com contributor Reuben Fischer-Baum recently wrote an in depth analysis of the types of statistical data that is collected in regards to officer involved shootings. He points out that there is no national database that is solely dedicated to keeping track of officer involved killings. What little information we do have comes from general sources devoted to tracking crime or national health. These include sources like the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, The Center For Disease Control and Prevention, the Justice Department and the National Vital Statistics System.

A part from the fact that there is no national database, there is also no consistent way of classifying officer involved killings. That means that in many cases the information that does get reported often makes no mention of officer involvement in the listed ’cause of death’.

While the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program is often cited by the media as a reliable source for information regarding officer involved killing, the basic program does not include information on victims or offenders. A separate reporting form, the Supplementary Homicide Report, is supposed to track and record all “justifiable homicides’.

There are several obvious problems with the FBI’s reporting system. First, there is no requirement for police or other agencies to report crime to the FBI. According to the FBI’s website there are currently:

“over 18,000 city, university/college, county, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies voluntarily participating in the program.”

While that may sound like a lot of organizations, when it comes to getting a real and accurate picture of what’s going on in the country, the concern, of course, is that there are still some agencies who are not reporting.

There’s also the problem of asking police to accurately report the nature of killings they were involved in themselves, and then relying on whatever information they choose to provide as unquestionably accurate.

Fischer-Baum analyzed just the available data from various sources, including the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, the National Vital Statistics System (labelled NVSS on the chart below) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (labelled BJS). As you can see from the chart below, the figures are not the same.

Image Credit: Reuben Fischer-Baum, fivethirtyeight.com

Image Credit: Reuben Fischer-Baum, fivethirtyeight.com

He found a gap of about 3,000 people per year, whose deaths were recorded as homicides by the National Vital Statistics System, but were not reported as homicides under the FBI’s program.

Looking at the chart below, which shows data from 2000 – 2010, you can see that this gap is consistent from year to year, and actually begins to widen after 2010.

Image Credit: Reuben Fischer-Baum, fivethirtyeight.com

Image Credit: Reuben Fischer-Baum, fivethirtyeight.com

Fischer-Baum explains it this way:

“During this span, the NVSS database reported an average of 18,011 homicide deaths per year. The raw SHR data contained an average of 15,024 victims. (The spike in 2001 is due to 2,823 homicides associated with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.) That’s a roughly 3,000-person gap.

Some of those 3,000 deaths are police homicides, justifiable and unjustifiable — there’s no way of knowing how many. They also include other homicides that are not reported to the SHR but which have nothing to do with police involvement — for example, killings that occur in federal jurisdictions.

It’s likely there are homicides recorded in the SHR that should be attributed to police as “justifiable” but aren’t. And, as I mentioned earlier, there’s an unknown number of unjustifiable police homicides that aren’t marked with any evidence of police involvement. Account for all that, and you would have the true number of police homicides each year.”

Unfortunately, no-one at the federal level seems to be concerned about ‘accounting for all that,’ although it’s interesting to note that there is a special database that is devoted to keeping track of the number of police officers who are injured or killed by civilians, every year.

So we’re left with an unknown number of American citizens who are killed by police every year. We don’t know how high that number is, but we do know, as Fischer-Baum points out in his final statement:

“It’s more than 400.”