We Still Don’t Know How Many Shot by Police

Police BlueBy Kanya Bennett

One year ago, the White House released The Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing — 116 pages of recommendations meant to address the epidemic of killings of unarmed Black and brown people by the police officers sworn to protect them. The report was supposed to be a blueprint for reforms in policing this country has needed for decades. Yet 12 months after its publication, our government still can’t even come up with the number of people who have been killed by U.S. police.

“[E]mbarrassing and ridiculous”—that’s how the director of the FBI characterized our government’s lack of data on killings by police. He also said it’s “unacceptable” that we have to rely on two newspapers — The Guardian and The Washington Post — to get national estimates for these statistics.

The federal government is the official record keeper of shark attacks and farm animals. Certainly police shootings are of national significance, too, and should be documented by the very entity that provides dollars and resources to local police. How can we start to address a national crisis if our own government can’t measure it?

This year’s tallies by the Guardian and the Post are roughly the same as they were at this point last year — the problems with our police departments’ use of force aren’t going away.

Think of David Joseph, who was unarmed and naked when an Austin, Texas, police officer shot him three times and killed him. Reports indicate that the 17-year-old African-American may have been experiencing a mental health crisis when he was shot in February. Almost a year ago, similar circumstances surrounded the fatal police shooting of Anthony Hill in DeKalb County, Georgia.

A police officer in Winslow, Arizona, shot Loreal Tsingine five times, killing her after she allegedly threatened him with scissors. Police said the 27-year-old Native American woman was a shoplifting suspect from a nearby convenience store.

Mental illness plays a role in 25 percent of fatal police shootings. People of color make up 47 percent of those killed by police. Just as troubling as these statistics is that we have to piece them together from two newspapers’ databases whose totals don’t match up. Why isn’t our government doing the job?

Because the recommendation in The Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing on data collection is a “should,” not a “must”: “policies on use of force should also require agencies to collect, maintain, and report data to the federal government on all officer-involved shootings, whether fatal or nonfatal, as well as any in-custody death.”

“Should” means that providing data on police shootings to the federal government remains voluntary, which is why the FBI’s Unified Crime Reporting data — the most comprehensive government database on crimes in the nation — can’t produce any national statistics. A grand total of 224 police departments out of the more than 18,000 across the country reported fatal police shootings to the federal government in 2014.

For too long, the Department of Justice has allowed police departments to opt out of sharing their data with the federal government, even when these departments receive federal funds. As we and 81 other organizations urged the Department of Justice in March, it’s time to require any department that gets a piece of the annual $4 billion in criminal justice grants it gives to state and local agencies to collect and report data on police-community encounters. The Justice Department should also issue regulations for the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act, so we know what “custody” means and what happens when departments don’t comply.

Since the task force report, the White House, FBI, and Bureau of Justice Statistics have each begun new police data programs. But these initiatives all rely on voluntary participation just like their failed predecessors. The numbers say it all:  A mere 53 police departments nationwide have signed up for the White House Police Data Initiative. That’s a participation rate of less than 1 percent.

The FBI says it is making significant improvements to its database. But even with the best data system in the world, what good is it without data? The federal government needs to take more than modest steps to collect information on police-community encounters. And law enforcement has a responsibility to provide the data we need to advance necessary reforms.

If the federal government is giving out federal dollars, law enforcement has to hand over the data.

By Kanya Bennett is the Legislative Counsel of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Tia Will

    One of the roles that we seem to agree on for government regardless of our ideologic leanings is protection of the population. Should not this protection apply to protection from the excesses of law enforcement officers just as it does to protection from foreign threat ?  I find it completely unacceptable that deaths at the hands of law enforcement are not mandatory reportable events.

  2. Biddlin


    The KilledByPolice numbers are compiled using mainstream media sources. Actual totals are undoubtedly higher, as not all police killings are reported, and it is virtually impossible to check all of the tens of thousands of media sources in the country.

    450, so far in 2016

    1,207 in 2015

    1,112 in 2014

    772 in 2013

    (China, whose population is 4 and 1/2 times that of the United States, had  12 killings by law enforcement officers in 2014. The US cops killed 92 times that number.)
     Other first world capitalist countries, like Germany and the UK , are 0, or single digit numbers.
    While violence among US citizens has dropped, violence against citizens carried out by our militarized US police is up 44%.
    US cops spend hundreds of hours training on the use of deadly weapons, but virtually none on de-escalation.

    Recently, there has been an unprecedented outpouring of opposition to police murder. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in many cities, towns and campuses.
    Now I await the usual apologists.

  3. Barack Palin

    China, whose population is 4 and 1/2 times that of the United States, had  12 killings by law enforcement officers in 2014.

    So we aren’t to believe the the USA numbers but we’re supposed to believe the Chinese figures?

    1. Biddlin

      And the first apologist arrives, right on time.  Do you believe Great Britain? Germany? Australia?

      The story never changes. US cops are the most heavily armed and dangerous gang around.

      I know Fox news purposely deletes this subject from searches, but there are other sources.


    2. Tia Will


      So we aren’t to believe the the USA numbers but we’re supposed to believe the Chinese figures?”

      I think that you may be missing the point that we don’t have comparable numbers because the US government doesn’t collect them on a mandatory basis.

      1. Barack Palin

        No, my point was why would anyone ever cite any numbers out of China and try to compare them to the USA.  Everyone knows that China can’t be trusted when it comes to citing figures like these, well at least I thought everyone did.

  4. tribeUSA

    Yes, seems like a good idea to get the numbers out accurately.

    I wonder what Police Departments think of the idea of more training in de-escalation techniques, to reduce the odds of a bad ending to a police stop or arrest?

    Also, I don’t see the need to conflate the issue of excessive use of force with that of race. I think that such conflation weakens public support for addressing the problem of excessive use of force; since people will wonder if this is just another politicized racial-baiting or police-demonizing movement. It seems to me excessive use of force is an issue for many poor people of all races–the first priority should be to address it in a colorblind way; then if statistical evidence emerges that there is a higher percentage of confrontations that turn violent between police and suspects of some races than of other races; this can be addressed as well.

  5. Biddlin

    The 708th person killed by police in 2016 was 73 y.o. retired librarian Mary Knowlton.

    She was killed by officer Lee Coel

    Tuesday evening at the Punta Gorda Citizen Police Academy, a course was set up to give participants an up-close look at the local police force in the Southwest Florida community known for its retirees.

    During the scenario dubbed “shoot/don’t shoot” on Tuesday, the elderly mother was struck with live ammunition and killed. The sessions are common in police training and are often carried out in citizens academies but most such programs use rubber guns or at least, unloaded weapons.

    Earlier this year, Coel and his K9 went too far during a traffic stop arrest. A video showed Coel sending his K-9 to help take down a bicyclist, and then allowed the dog to stay latched on for nearly two minutes. Prior to that incident and his hiring by the Punta Gorda PD, he was dismissed from another department for excessive force. Coel was dismissed from the Miramar Police Department during his probationary period over an excessive force complaint.

    Punta Gorda’s chief said that there was also a video of the Miramar excessive force, which his department reviewed during their hiring decision of Coel.

    Wonder who’ll hire him next?

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