Defenders of the police have launched a counter-offensive, arguing that more whites are killed by police each year than blacks. That focuses the debate on the critical question as to whether we should look at the black’s percentage of the population or proportion of the violent crime.
However, a new investigation by the Guardian turns this debate on its head. Their findings are, “Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people.” 102 of 464 people killed so far this year in incidents with law enforcement officers were not carrying weapons.
They analyzed public records and local news reports to learn that, of the 464 people killed so far by police, “32% of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, as were 25% of Hispanic and Latino people, compared with 15% of white people killed.”
The five-month study also found that “local and state police and federal law enforcement agencies are killing people at twice the rate calculated by the US government’s official public record of police homicides.”
“The Guardian’s statistics include deaths after the police use of a Taser, deaths caused by police vehicles and deaths following altercations in police custody, as well as those killed when officers open fire. They reveal that 29% of those killed by police, or 135 people, were black. Sixty-seven, or 14%, were Hispanic/Latino, and 234, or 50%, were white. In total, 102 people who died during encounters with law enforcement in 2015 were unarmed.”
The Guardian’s figure of 464 people killed trumps the report by the Washington Post over the weekend (Fatal police shootings in 2015 approaching 400 nationwide), which put the number at 385. The discrepancy highlights a critical problem that we have reported numerous times – there is no official count of those killed by police officers (whether those killings are justified, unjustified, or disputed). Nate Silver’s site has estimated the number annually at over 1000.
“It’s troubling that we have no official data from the federal government,” said Laurie Robinson, the co-chair of Barack Obama’s task force on 21st-century policing. “I think it’s very helpful, in light of that fact, to have this kind of research undertaken.”
But the Washington Post’s report dovetails on the critical finding by the Guardian: “About half the victims were white, half minority. But the demographics shifted sharply among the unarmed victims, two-thirds of whom were black or Hispanic. Overall, blacks were killed at three times the rate of whites or other minorities when adjusting by the population of the census tracts where the shootings occurred.”
Other findings by the Post:
- The vast majority of victims — more than 80 percent — were armed with potentially lethal objects, primarily guns, but also knives, machetes, revving vehicles and, in one case, a nail gun.
- Forty-nine people had no weapon, while the guns wielded by 13 others turned out to be toys. In all, 16 percent were either carrying a toy or were unarmed.
- The dead ranged in age from 16 to 83. Eight were children younger than 18, including Jessie Hernandez, 17, who was shot three times by Denver police officers as she and a carload of friends allegedly tried to run them down.
The Post also attempts to shed light on the situations that led to fatal shootings – not surprisingly there is a strong mental illness component. They write: “About half of the time, police were responding to people seeking help with domestic disturbances and other complex social situations: A homeless person behaving erratically. A boyfriend threatening violence. A son trying to kill himself. Ninety-two victims — nearly a quarter of those killed — were identified by police or family members as mentally ill.”
They give an example, “In Miami Gardens, Fla., Catherine Daniels called 911 when she couldn’t persuade her son, Lavall Hall, a 25-year-old black man, to come in out of the cold early one morning in February. A diagnosed schizophrenic who stood 5-foot-4 and weighed barely 120 pounds, Hall was wearing boxer shorts and an undershirt and waving a broomstick when police arrived. They tried to stun him with a Taser gun and then shot him.”
The other half seemed more routine, as they involved “robberies, or the routine duties that occupy patrol officers, such as serving warrants.”
Mother Jones writes this morning (Here’s What 2 Big New Reports on Police Killings Tell Us), “The two reports confirm and build upon what previous attempts to collect and examine this data have already shown: Police killings happen much more frequently than the existing official data shows.”
- Police officers kill suspects at about twice the rate calculated by the FBI. In the first five months of 2015, the Post documented a total of 385 people who were fatally shot by police officers, or 2.5 per day—a rate more than twice that tallied by the federal government over the past decade. The Guardian, which counted 467 deaths by police so far in 2015—including not just deaths from gunfire but those involving Tasers, vehicle, or other causes—arrived at a similar rate.
- The majority of those killed are armed. Armed suspects primarily had guns, the Post reported, but were also armed with “potentially lethal objects” such as knives, machetes, and in one instance, a nail gun.
- But a significant chunk of suspects were unarmed when they were killed. The Post found that nearly 13 percent of victims in its dataset were unarmed, while 22 percent of those counted by the Guardian were unarmed.
- Officers involved are rarely charged. This is consistent with prior research on prosecutions in cases of officer misconduct and use of deadly force. In the Post‘s 385 cases, only three officers have faced charges: Michael Slager (for the death of Walter Scott in South Carolina), Robert Bates (for killing Eric Harris in Oklahoma), and Lisa Mearkle (who killed David Kassick in Pennsylvania).
- There are significant racial disparities among the dead, particularly among unarmed suspects. While the majority of suspects in the cases the Post looked at were white, blacks and Hispanics made up two-thirds of those who were unarmed. The Guardian‘s reporting showed that about one-third of black suspects killed were unarmed, compared with one-fourth of hispanic suspects, and about one-sixth of white suspects. Racial disparities in police killings have also been documented in databases maintained by the FBI, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- About a quarter of all suspects killed were reportedly mentally ill. According to both the Post and the Guardian.
- Most of those killed are men. Five percent of suspects tracked by the Post were female, consistent with the Guardian‘s breakdown. While most of the high-profile officer-involved shootings since Ferguson have involved men, several ongoing campaigns are bringing more attention to the deaths of women.
- The majority of suspects were between 25 and 44 years old. That’s based on the Post‘s analysis. The three youngest victims identified by the Guardian were 16. The oldest was 87.
- At least 27 people were killed by a Taser. That finding’s from the Guardian. Tasers are considered a less-lethal weapon by law enforcement officials, but their use has been recently questioned by the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
- The deaths involved a small group of the nation’s estimated 18,000 law enforcement agencies. Three hundred and six, to be exact. The Post found that 19 state and local departments were involved in three or more fatal shootings each, including the police departments of Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, and Bakersfield, California.
- Police officers are responsible for 1 in every 13 gun deaths. That figure, the equivalent of about 8 percent, comes from the Post‘s Christopher Ingraham. That’s a lot more than suggested by other data on gun violence in America.
Finally they add, “It’s also worth noting what these investigations don’t readily show. It’s unclear, for instance, in how many cases police officers were known to have a history of misconduct or a questionable record. How many cases were captured on video? Are there notable racial disparities among mentally ill suspects? To what extent do the Post‘s and the Guardian‘s probes reveal incidents that weren’t previously publicized?
“These questions still linger. Still, for anyone who has been keeping an eye on police killings, these reports are a valuable start toward filling the gaping holes in the data.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting