We Have No Idea How Many Americans Are Killed By Police Each Year
Because of several high-profile killings of unarmed people by cops recently, I became curious what the total numbers were for the entire country. I also wanted to see how different states and cities stacked up against each other. What I didn’t expect to find was no such official numbers even existed even though congress passed a law requiring a database to be kept back in 1994. It was a provision contained in the Violent Crime Control And Enforcement Act of 1994.
Congress instructed the Attorney General to compile and publish annual statistics but this was never carried out. The FBI has a very comprehensive database called the UCR (Uniform Crime Reports) where they keep a very detailed accounting of crime statistics but any fatalities caused with police involvement are missing.
The number of police fatalities though is maintained which includes data all the way back to 1791. The number of police killed in the line of duty was actually far higher back in the early part of the twentieth century with over 200 killed on average each year than in 2013 when 100 police officers were killed. Certainly, prohibition had some part in those high numbers, but aren’t our drug laws essentially a modern version of prohibition? Also, our population is far larger in 2021 than it was in 1930 when 297 police officers were killed. I was also surprised to see that in the 1950s which some people fondly remember with nostalgia as a prosperous and peaceful decade saw more police officers killed every year of the 1950s than in 2013.
The one statistic you will have a hard time locating is how many Americans are killed by police whether justified or not. You will not find those numbers since they do not exist. Was this done on purpose? The more I researched this question the more convinced I became it appears to be intentional and not an oversight.
At first, I was dubious that no database existed. I thought I might have used the wrong search terms, but then I read multiple articles confirming no official database existed. Unofficial lists like the one on Wikipedia exist but are a poor substitute. The problem with unofficial databases like Wikipedia is they aren’t very thorough or complete. Wikipedia is fantastic if you need to know the capital of Mongolia, but not so great for a complicated database with numerous variables. Another problem is the way different police departments around the country file reports which means fatalities caused by police action might not be reported at all or differently which can distort numbers. Another problem is that these unofficial lists are just that…lists and not databases. So if you are trying to search for certain age groups for example or people with mental illness, or other key terms you are out of luck. In other words, you can’t drill down for key info which is the whole point of having a database.
I am not even close to being the first blogger to notice the importance of having such a database. Brian Burghart editor/publisher of the Reno News & Review and a journalism instructor at the University of Nevada decided to try and fill the void and create one. He created a website called Fatal Encounters after he was returning home from work in 2012 and cops had shot and killed the driver of a stolen car but then there was no mention of this in the local papers. That is when he discovered no database existed and decided to start his own.
A few months after the incident in Nevada above, a naked 18-year old college student named Gil Collar was shot and killed by University of South Alabama police. The student was unarmed and possibly on drugs. There is a two-minute video showing the incident. The 5-foot7, 140-pound student never got closer than 4 feet from the officer and also never grabbed for the gun. The officer chose to run out of his police station instead of waiting for backup. Am I the only one that thinks a baton, pepper spray, or simply waiting for backup would not have been a better solution? Naked streakers at sports events happen all the time without ending in a fatality. So why was this naked and unarmed 18-year old shot and killed?
In Japan, I happened to witness an almost identical incident with a naked man that appeared to be on drugs but unlike the student in Alabama, he had a very large knife he was brandishing. The police never drew their guns. Instead, they simply threw a net over him and he fell to the ground then they used a baton to dislodge the knife from his hand. He was cuffed, covered with a sheet, and taken away. The police were never at risk for injury and they also gently cuffed him and he had no injuries unlike the NFL-style tackles so common here with often impatient police. It turns out he was not on drugs but had a mental disorder. Would he have survived if this happened in Fullerton, CA and not Nagoya, Japan? Why are police in America so quick to use deadly force as a first resort instead of as a last resort? What happened to batons, nets, pepper spray, and simply trying to talk first and shoot later instead of the reverse.
I realize being a cop is no easy job. I may not understand all the difficulties and stress involved but I think everyone can sympathize with the fact that being a police officer is often dirty and extremely dangerous work. I also understand part of the problem is arcane rules and training which limits their options. Like any profession, there are also good and bad apples. So I do not condemn all police officers when incidents like this occur. But I also have to ask are we doing enough to lower fatalities caused by police officers. Are we doing enough to weed out the bad apples from the good ones?
Some Police are operating on a hair-trigger and their first instinct is to shoot first and ask questions later. These cops need to be identified and helped. It might be as simple as more training, moved to a desk job, therapy or termination. If their training tells them to respond with deadly force before de-escalating the situation the training manuals need to be re-written. Deadly force should always be a last resort when necessary.
I have also noticed more incidents of dogs being shot and killed for no apparent reason. Recently a 2-year old lab that was inside a van at a coffee shop while the owner was inside was shot and killed by a police officer. Even though the dog was locked inside the van the officer claimed he felt threatened. Unless labs can now open car doors I don’t think he was at any risk.
In my hometown in Georgia, there have also been multiple incidents of dogs killed by police under very questionable circumstances. I personally know of a case where a woman’s two small breed dogs were shot and killed on her porch by a probation officer looking for her daughter even though she had not spoken with the daughter in over two years. The daughter had listed her mother’s address as her probation residence, but they failed to verify this with the mother. The mother and daughter had a falling out over the daughter’s drug addiction and had not spoken since. He arrived at her home with his gun drawn and shot the two small dogs on the porch because they were barking. They posed no threat and he could have simply stayed in his car but instead chose to kill her dogs even though the person he was after had not been at the home in over two years. The probation officer was not punished.
I certainly understand that deadly force has to be used if the officer fears for his own safety or of others but I also have to believe with a little more training and common sense many of these tragedies of killing even small dogs like chihuahuas could be avoided. Dogs bark because that is what they are supposed to do. It is becoming far too commonplace for these types of shootings where pets are killed with no justification.
Best Guestimate as to how many Fatalities caused by Police
A guestimate is all we have without an official database in place. We have to rely on people like Brian Burghart to give us a rough idea. Some people have attempted to extrapolate existing data to try and come up with a number, but these are not necessarily reliable since many police departments have many different methods for reporting data which can cause errors in reporting. One reasonably reliable statistic we do have is the number of Americans who die in homicides each year. This data can be found in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics System (NVSS) and is based on death certificates. The NVSS includes the cause of death classifications “homicide” and homicide by “legal intervention”: the geneal equivalent of the SHR’s “justifiable police homicides” number.
In the chart above you can see total killings, which include legal interventions as police shootings are often called, from 1999 to 2011. These figures show an average of 406 deaths per year with police involvement during that time span.
In the chart below you can see total homicides overall which include police-involved shootings. 2001 peaked because of the 9/11 terrorist attack and these homicides were included in the statistics.
Reuben Fisher-Baum at a website called Five Thirty Eight did a very good job of collecting and analyzing all the data that is accessible and his conclusion was the number appears to be far larger than 400. I will leave it to you to check out his article and make your own judgment if you agree with his findings or not. He found there was around a 3,000 person gap in the reports which is a lot higher than the 406 figure above. He reached 3,000 by a process of elimination and a lot of analysis from available databases. If his number is accurate, that is a very troubling number.
Even 406 seems excessively high when other industrialized countries don’t come close to that even when you take our larger population into account. In 2011 for example six people were killed in Australia by police, two in the U.K, and six in Germany as compared to the 406 we know about here in the U.S.
The Entire U.S. Penal System is Broken with 2.4 Million Americans Locked Up
The incarceration rate in the United States is the highest in the world. This cannot be blamed on police since they simply enforce existing laws and they don’t make the laws. According to Wikipedia: “As of October 2013, the incarceration rate was 716 per 100,000 of the national population. While the United States represents about 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Imprisonment of America’s 2.4 million prisoners, costing $24,000 per inmate per year, (more for higher security prisons) and $5.1 billion in new prison construction, consumes $60.3 billion in budget expenditures.”
Surely with any talk about police reform, we must also consider legal reform that considers who ends up going to jails and prisons in the first place. The fact that over 2.4 million Americans are in the penal system behind bars or on probation is a frightening statistic. That has quadrupled since 1980. Certainly, violent criminals need to be behind bars but the vast majority of this increase came from increased sentencing laws which ties the hands of judges, as well as from non-violent drug sentences. For-profit private prisons also want to be at full capacity to make a profit. ” Louisiana, for example, has the highest rate of incarceration in the world with the majority of its prisoners being housed in privatized, for-profit facilities. Such institutions could face bankruptcy without a steady influx of prisoners.” according to The Times-Picayune.
I mention these numbers because as an outsider looking in, it appears the whole system is beyond broken. Certainly, we seem to need major reforms but why stop at only looking at police-involved homicides. Isn’t it time we reconsidered for-profit prisons which need a steady flow of prisoners to show a profit and encourage corruption and abuse to pinch pennies. Fans of the Netflix series Orange is the New Black are aware of problems at for-profit prisons may encounter.
Isn’t it time we trust our judges again to look at each case on it’s own merits and make exceptions when it is justified. Isn’t is also time we looked at drug sentencing again and try and get these drug users some treatment and jobs instead of prison orange and a felony record that will destroy their lives. Our murder rate is lower than it was in 1960 but we have 2.4 million (the vast majority for drug charges) incarcerated. Not only can we cannot afford to pay an average of $33,000 per year per inmate, our current system makes it next to impossible for any prisoner to find employment once released thanks to the stigma associated with hiring an ex-con which often means there only source of income in selling drugs which starts the cycle all over again.
Why is there no database?
I honestly cannot think of any rational reason why neither the Department of Justice nor the FBI chose not to fulfill their duties as ordered by congress and compile a database except for the fact that they are intentionally choosing not to compile the data. If you can think of a reason by all means let me know in the comments. Fatal Encounters will never have the resources, nor access to information to compile a library in the same league as the current UCR which includes the number of police fatally wounded by criminals. Brian Burghart the creator of Fatal Encounters said “The biggest thing I’ve taken away from this project is something I’ll never be able to prove, but I’m convinced to my core: The lack of such a database is intentional. No government—not the federal government, and not the thousands of municipalities that give their police forces license to use deadly force—wants you to know how many people it kills and why.
It’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence. What evidence? In attempting to collect this information, I was lied to and delayed by the FBI, even when I was only trying to find out the addresses of police departments to make public records requests. The government collects millions of bits of data annually about law enforcement in its Uniform Crime Report, but it doesn’t collect information about the most consequential act a law enforcer can do.
I’ve been lied to and delayed by state, county and local law enforcement agencies—almost every time. They’ve blatantly broken public records laws, and then thumbed their authoritarian noses at the temerity of a citizen asking for information that might embarrass the agency. And these are the people in charge of enforcing the law.”
He continues on to say that bad journalism is also complicit. Yesterday I published an article called Do We have A Fourth Estate to Save. In this article I also asked if journalism AKA The Fourth Estate, are not up to the same standards as they used to be. There is a sloppiness and laziness where they don’t fact checks or sources and can often just act like stenographers for the police. Reporters make fundamental errors or typos; they accept police excuses for not releasing names of the dead or the shooters, or don’t publish the decedents’ names even if they’re released; they don’t publish police or coroner’s reports. Without a diligent press willing to verify data we can never be sure of the validity of reports. This also allows hostility and tension to fester in neighborhoods that feel abandoned and forgotten when there is a question of whether the fatality was justified or not.
One other troubling detail I learned while researching this article is that of all the fatalities involving police shootings98.9% of them were considered justified. That is hardly surprising since it is the police themselves that decide guilt or innocence in shootings. I think no police agency should ever be able to investigate a shooting by one of its own officers. Either state police, a neighboring county, or federal authorities should be responsible which would go a long way towards letting people feel a little better about the results. It is hard to imagine that all 98.9% of those deaths were justified.
I hope readers will not misunderstand the intent of this article. I am not anti-police in the least. I understand that police as first responders also save lives every single day across the country. I realize an extremely high percentage of them are consummate professionals who might serve 30 or more years on the force and never shoot a suspect. I am aware of why there might be a reluctance to create such a database, but I think we can no longer look the other way. The good cops will be far better off if the bad ones can be weeded out. These are the ones that give all the good cops a bad name. I also understand that in many instances the shooting is completely justified just not 98.9% of them. All I am suggesting is there be a bit more transparency with the data.
There is no need for any new laws by congress since this law is on the books. We simply have to ask for the existing law to be enforced and this data to be collected and entered into the existing UCR library. I have traveled the world and even lived in some other countries and in a few countries, you could sense fear among the citizens towards the police. This happened mostly in poorer third-world countries. In wealthier countries there was no fear like you see here in the U.S. In the U.K. for example people show no hesitation to approach a Bobby as they are called for any manner of help. In fact, their police are unarmed.
In Japan, the police have small police box buildings in every neighborhood called a Koban. There are around 6,000 Koban scattered all over the country. Each station is manned 24 hours and is served by officers stationed there often for many years. They patrol the neighborhood usually on foot or bicycle and most people in that area are on a first-name basis with the officers and even have their direct cell phone numbers. On cold nights it is not even uncommon for people to go inside a police box and have some green tea and chat with police. The community they serve know the police and the police know the community very well. This close relationship creates a sense of trust and mutual respect that seems lacking in the U.S.
I think it is time we reviewed our entire policing system. The military surplus equipment is just the tip of the iceberg. Training manuals also need to be evaluated. Now I realize in suburbs where police might have to patrol 10 square miles or more a Koban is impractical. But in more densely packed urban areas this should certainly be an option worth considering. Police also need to present a friendlier face to the public. It would be nice to see police getting more involved at visiting schools and talking with students so they can start at a young age to see police not as threats but as good people and part of the community. Police also will need to be able to step over that thin blue line and report crooked cops in their ranks. Keeping silent when you know bad cops are on the force will always backfire once the truth eventually comes out which it almost always does. One bad apple really does spoil the bunch.
I don’t pretend to have all or even any of the answers just a number of observations and statistics. I do however think the system we have now is beyond broken and reform is long overdue. I imagine it will take a combination of factors that include more transparency, more training, more friendly interaction with the public, and perhaps something along the lines of community police with a Koban or similar. This is not a Democrat or Republican problem this is an American problem. I think all citizens including the police themselves want less tension and more trust between the police and the people they serve.
We also cannot stop there. It is inexcusable that 2.4 million Americans are behind bars and the vast majority are locked up for drug charges. We lost the war on drugs a long time ago so it is time for a new game plan. Surely there are better solutions than incarcerating people for decades for non-violent drug crimes. I am not suggesting we release drug cartel or gang members with violent records. But surely we can show more common sense and compassion for people that have their entire lives practically destroyed not for selling drugs but for getting caught with marijuana for their own personal use now that it is actually legal in two states and likely more will follow. The fact that marijuana is still listed as a schedule I drug along with LSD and heroin is simply insane.
A Final Message To Our Police
The vast majority of cops out there are good and decent people. I imagine you often feel damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Police are caught in a catch-22 and probably know better than any of us how our screwed-up laws are making their jobs nearly impossible. They have no choice but to enforce the laws even if they disagree with them. I think I can speak for most Americans when I say we do appreciate your service. Few of us can truly imagine what it is like to go to work and have the possibility that you might get injured or killed on the job every single day. You do an often thankless but essential job. I for one appreciate your service.
I really hope any police officers that read this article did not view it as an indictment against you personally or as a profession. If anything I want to make your jobs easier. I would love to see more police officers hired, more training to deal with people with mental illness, more sensible drug-sentencing laws, an end to for-profit prisons that have helped create our ridiculously high incarceration rate, an end to mandatory sentencing, and better programs to deal with non-violent drug offenders to integrate them into the workforce. I do appreciate your service and I wanted to thank you for all the good you do that never makes the news.
I will end with a personal story I witnessed and wanted to share. I was at a store and saw a police officer hand a young homeless man that was sitting outside a drink and a large assortment of food items. This happened about a month ago in Macon at a store on Presidential Parkway. I didn’t get his name but that really touched me and I am sure it happens all over the country every day but rarely gets any press. Had I not witnessed it the only other person that would have known would have been the young homeless man he helped. At the end of the day all Americans have to understand we are in this together. The police are not our enemies, but until we have true reform across the board they are as trapped in this miasma along with the rest of us. I hope we have finally reached a point where we can have a serious debate over our laws and policing in general.
Nobody Knows How Many Americans Are Killed by the Police Every Year
Exactly How many unarmed killed by police?
Local Police involved in 400 killings per year
Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR)
National Vital Statistics System (NVSS)
U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)
Underreporting of Justifiable Homicides Committed by Police Officers in the United States, 1976–1998