By Brian T. Lynch, MSW
How many people are shot and killed by law enforcement every year? The answer is that no one knows.
There are 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, including local municipal police. There is no national database to track police shootings. The FBI has maintains a partial data based of police killings, but submitting data to the FBI is on a voluntary basis. Only 750 law enforcement agencies, just 44% of all agencies, volunteer to submit police shooting data. What the FBI collects and reports are only those cases in which police homicides were considered justified by the departments reporting them. Some of the largest law enforcement agencies, such as the US Border Patrol, do not report shooting incidents to anyone. It isn’t even clear if the US Border Patrol has an internal tracking system for shooting incidents.
So, given this very limited collection of information on police killings, what does the FBI data base show?
There are about 400 “justified” police homicides per year. Every week in this country there are two incidents like the one in Ferguson, Missouri, involving a white police officer shooting a black citizen. About half of all police homicides involve black citizens, and among the population of folks 21 years old or younger, the police homicide rate for blacks is 18%, twice the rate for white citizens (8.7%). And these numbers are based on voluntary self-report from less than half of all law enforcement agencies nation wide.
This and other information on police killings come from a recent CNN article (see below) Couple these startling facts with the militarization of local police departments and the changing nature of police culture and we have some frightening new insights on our hands. These are issues that clearly need to be confronted and addressed.
Local police involved in 400 killings per year
Kevin Johnson, Meghan Hoyer and Brad Heath , USA TODAY
August 15, 2014
WASHINGTON — Nearly two times a week in the United States, a white police officer killed a black person during a seven-year period ending in 2012, according to the most recent accounts of justifiable homicide reported to the FBI.
On average, there were 96 such incidents among at least 400 police killings each year that were reported to the FBI by local police. The numbers appear to show that the shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., last Saturday was not an isolated event in American policing.
The reports show that 18% of the blacks killed during those seven years were under age 21, compared to 8.7% of whites. The victim in Ferguson was 18-year-old Michael Brown. Police have yet to identify the officer who shot him; witnesses have said the officer was white.
While the racial analysis is striking, the database it’s based on has been long considered flawed and largely incomplete. The killings are self-reported by law enforcement and not all police departments participate so the database undercounts the actual number of deaths. Plus, the numbers are not audited after they are submitted to the FBI and the statistics on “justifiable” homicides have conflicted with independent measures of fatalities at the hands of police.