As Officer Darren Wilson does the media circuit explaining that we should be feeling sorry for him rather than the unarmed man that he shot and killed with multiple rounds and the St. Louis prosecutor strains every sinew to ‘explain’ how reasonable the grand jury decision to dismiss all possible indictments really was; it now seems clear why there are no reliable national statistics on police shootings of the public in the United States. That’s right, no one knows exactly how many civilians are shot by police officers each year in the U.S.
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Michael Brown. Rekia Boyd. Oscar Grant.
They were all unarmed black youth at the center of high-profile shootings that spurred protests about police use of excessive force and reignited debates about police relations with communities of color. Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August. Boyd was shot by an off-duty police officer in Chicago in 2012. Grant was shot by a transit cop in Oakland, Calif., five years ago.
Brown’s death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson, who was not indicted by a St. Louis grand jury on Monday, has become the focal point for a growing national movement to address allegations of police brutality and violence. Yet despite skepticism about police conduct in African-American and Latino communities — reflected in viral hashtags like #HandsUpDontShoot — there are no reliable statistics on how often police kill civilians of any race. The Department of Justice and the FBI keep some numbers, but the nation’s nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies aren’t required to report these deaths or complaints against officers.
Those on the frontlines in Ferguson, advocates for greater police accountability and policing experts say the numbers could reveal the extent of police misconduct nationwide and be a catalyst for reform.
The lack of available statistics “hides the truth and scope of this problem, which is real, vast – and not new,” said Christina Swarns, the chief litigator for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in an interview before the grand jury decision.
“Ferguson obviously brought the crisis in focus, but we and others across the country have been deeply concerned at the rate at which African-Americans are hurt and killed in the course of law-enforcement encounters. The absence of the documentation really undermines the effort to expose how horrific this is, because the instinct is for many people to characterize these things as one-offs and aberrations.”
Lack of data on police use of deadly force
Between 2008 and 2013, the FBI recorded 2,480 “justifiable homicides” by police officers — an average of 413 homicides a year. The statistics, which are tracked via the agency’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, constitute the closest thing to a federal database of police shootings.
However, the FBI’s count and definition of a justifiable homicide, which includes deaths by firearms, other weapons and physical attacks, is based on police investigations, not findings from judicial bodies or medical examiners. In addition, only about 750 of the nation’s nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies, or 4 percent, submit their numbers. The Chicago and Rockford police departments are the only two police agencies in the state that report their justifiable homicides, according to Illinois Uniform Crime Reporting Program Manager Terri Hickman. The state has about 900 law enforcement agencies.
Researchers contend that the FBI figures are inherently flawed, and the number of deaths is underreported.
Most police officers never discharge their guns over the course of their careers, statistics indicate. And experts say that even if all law-enforcement departments contributed to the report, many small- and medium-sized departments would likely have only a few or no shootings to disclose.
That fact does little to dissuade activists from pressing for more police transparency.
Charlene Carruthers, national coordinator of the Black Youth Project 100, based in Chicago, said she and other black Chicagoans don’t need convincing that the nation must curb civilian deaths at the hands of police. But some people “holding political and economic power” aren’t convinced, she said, making national data on the deaths crucial to “organize and change the system as it is.”
Brown’s death and the national conversation around excessive police force have motivated activists to “deepen our analysis of what’s happening here,” said Carruthers, who has traveled to Ferguson as part of the group’s work to organize black youth.
Mark Iris, the executive director of the Chicago Police Board for 21 years before stepping down, agrees that there should be more accurate national statistics on police shootings. The board helps decide discipline for cases of alleged police misconduct and nominates candidates for superintendent of police.
But Iris said the proliferation of Tasers as a firearm alternative, increased firearms instruction and training on how to deal with civilians in mental health crisis have likely reduced the number of people killed by police in the past several decades.
Police departments across the country drastically revised their use of force policies after a 1985 Supreme Court ruling that limited its use to situations in which an officer is in pursuit of a suspect who he believes poses a serious threat of death or injury to him. Before then, many departments allowed officers to use any means necessary to end a pursuit, said Iris, who these days lectures at Northwestern University.
He said the 24-7 news cycle and Internet have created an environment where a shooting “will get national and international coverage instantaneously in a way that wouldn’t happen 20 years ago.”
Iris said this creates a perception that there are more police shootings. “I would be very surprised if the number of shootings in Chicago today is anything close to what it was in 1970,” he said.
Still, Iris and other experts argue that more data would benefit police departments, not just civilians. Curious police chiefs might want to compare their department’s use of force with other departments that have a similar size or serve similar populations and determine if there are best practices used elsewhere that they can adopt, Iris said.
Advocates demand more police accountability
The lack of national data on police use of deadly force is a piece of a larger problem, according to supporters of more federal oversight of policing.
Historically, the United States has had “a national problem around race and policing that has to be addressed,” Swarns said. “And the federal government needs to step up and acknowledge that and take some leadership.”
One way of doing that, according to advocates for more police accountability, would be passing the End Racial Profiling Act, which is stalled in Congress.
The bill, which has received increased attention since Brown’s death, prohibits law enforcement from engaging in racial profiling; requires local governments and police to “maintain adequate policies and procedures for eliminating racial profiling”; and authorizes the attorney general to award funds for collecting data related to racial profiling while developing a system of best practices.
A petition to the Obama administration and key federal agencies from the activist network Color of Change lists the bill along with a slate of demands for increased federal oversight of policing, including:
“A comprehensive, streamlined, public national-level database of police shootings, excessive force, misconduct complaints, traffic and pedestrian stops, and arrests, broken down by race and other demographic data.”
Department of Justice civil rights and criminal probes into “discriminatory policing, excessive force, and death or injury by police” in every state.
In 1994, Congress ordered the Department of Justice to compile numbers on the use of excessive police force. However, no report on the topic has been published since then.
Swarns said state and county prosecutors work “hand-in-hand” with local law enforcement, which is why she suggests that an impartial agency investigate — and when appropriate — prosecute shootings to avoid bias.
However, local law enforcement could be motivated to do a better job, she said. The federal government could require police departments with a history or pattern of civilian killings to address the problem in order to receive funding.
“If the fact of multiple police shootings is in itself not an incentive for people to change policies,” Swarns said, “then I think a bigger incentive is money.”
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