by Christopher Zoukis
How often do police officers shoot Americans? How many people do they kill? What color were victims of police shootings? Were they armed?
It would seem reasonable that an informed citizenry that employs an enormous paramilitary police force nationwide would know the answers to these questions—or, at least be able to find the answers. But it turns out that the data related to police-involved shootings in the United States are notoriously sparse and very difficult to gather.
In the wake of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police, the media began looking for comprehensive data on police shootings. However, such information was not available; not even the FBI has these data. Then-Director James Comey called the lack of data “embarrassing” and launched a federal initiative to collect information from police departments across the country. But according to VICE News, only 35 out of 18,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies participated in Comey’s initiative.
Fortunately, major media outlets did not give up. The Washington Post and The Guardian both began to tally data from their own reports, as well as from other media sources from across the nation. VICE News did the same over a period of nine months, and added data obtained from the 50 largest police departments through public records requests. The VICE News investigation revealed that police officers in America shoot twice as many citizens as previously believed.
Out of the 50 departments investigated, VICE News obtained data from 47 of them. Cops in those departments shot at least 3,631 people between 2010 and 2016. They also fired at 700 others, whom they missed. Two-thirds of the people shot by police survived.
These numbers are shocking, partly because media coverage of police shootings is usually limited to fatal incidents. The public generally doesn’t hear much about non-fatal shootings, and criminologist David Klinger thinks that is a problem.
“We should know about how often it happens, if for no other reason than to simply understand the phenomenon,” said Klinger, a former Los Angeles police officer who now teaches criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “How often is it that police are putting bullets in people’s bodies or trying to put bullets in people’s bodies?”
The VICE News investigation, which covered 148,000 police officers who serve more than 54 million Americans, revealed some additional startling facts. Twenty percent of the people police shot were not armed. Fifty-five percent were Black, more than double the share of the black population in the sampled communities. And Black citizens shot by police were more likely to be fired upon during incidents that started out as routine traffic or pedestrian stops, i.e., relatively minor suspected offenses.
Black individuals who were shot by police were also more likely to have been unarmed than their white counterparts. Black victims of police shootings tended to be younger; 10 percent were under 18, compared to less than 2 percent of whites.
Nick Selby, a Texas police detective and author of In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians said that it’s important to take into account the context of each shooting, as well as the socioeconomic factors underlying crime.
“Deadly force has a disproportionate effect on nonwhite people, that’s true, but nonwhite people disproportionately engage in behavior that is criminal and dangerous,” Selby said.
Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of Campaign Zero, a police reform advocacy group, questioned the value of Selby’s claim, saying “that account has many times been called into question.” He noted, “It’s a complex picture, but what’s clear is that black people are more likely to be unarmed, and that more of these sort of low-level incidents escalate to shootings.”
The revelations in the VICE News data are disturbing, but there is reason for hope. In the years since the Ferguson incident, police shootings are down by 20 percent. A major factor in the reduction in police shootings has been federal intervention in the operation of several large departments, including Philadelphia, Chicago, and Las Vegas. According to VICE News, cities that voluntarily imposed DOJ-recommended reforms saw a 32 percent decline in police shootings in the first year. Departments forced to adopt federal reforms saw a 25 percent decline in that year.
Despite these successes, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made public his intention to “pull back” from federal intervention in local police departments. Ron Davis, the former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, said Sessions’ approach is tantamount to “incompetence” and “malpractice.”
“I think it’s dangerous,” Davis said. “Not only is that an ideological response; it’s one that’s absent of science and one that ignores evidence.”
Whether realized through federal or state efforts, the VICE News data indicate that reform is necessary. Police shoot far too many Americans, and even the hint that some are shot because of their skin color should be setting off alarm bells across the nation.
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