By Brian Finch
A year ago a Washington Post article posed an ominous question: How many police shootings take place a year? The answer was startling: No one knows.
What We Know:
Despite increasing pressure from law enforcement agencies, community members, journalists and researchers, nobody knows how many civilians are killed by police in their communities.
There are a number of reasons for this. Only 750 of approximately 17,985 law enforcement agencies (~4.2%) voluntarily submit data to the FBI’s annual report on “justifiable homicides.” Justifiable homicides are defined as fatal police shootings of suspected felons. The FBI’s annual report totaled 461 justifiable homicides for 2013. This annual count has hovered around 400 for the past two decades, paralleling counts from all government sources, including “arrest-related deaths” collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and “deaths by legal intervention” collected by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Let’s juxtapose those counts with a recent estimate made by the Wall Street Journal: 1,016 police homicides between 1/1/14 and 12/2/14. The WSJ count includes 346 police homicides (Killed by Police Project) in fewer than four months after Michael Brown’s death (8/9/14).
The Fatal Encounters Project from Reno, NV has partial documentation on more than 12,000 homicides between 2000-present, including 1,198 in 2013—nearly three-fold the FBI count. Old and new cases are submitted to Fatal Encounters on a daily basis. Most researchers agree that government counts severely underestimate the number of police homicides.
Researchers in Nevada estimate that as many as 9% of all homicides in 2013 were committed by law enforcement, while a study of LA County suggests that LA police kill as many as a person a week and these homicides comprise between 3-8% of all homicides.
Clearly, many of these homicides are likely committed in defense of police and civilians from violent criminals who are engaged in felony crimes. Use of force is justified in many situations, but the application of an extra-judicial death penalty may have profound implications for the safety and mental health of communities, as well as for the future mental health of police officers who have killed civilians. Police activities may also be disrupted in times of civil unrest resulting from police homicides. It is safe to assume citizens want fewer police homicides and police would prefer not to be involved in them. But, has the recent attention on police homicides changed public opinion about police?
How We Feel:
In order to gain some insight into American’s feelings about police homicides, the Understanding America Study (UAS) asked a panel of respondents the following three questions:
- Please select a point on the scale below which best summarizes your feeling toward your local police, with 0 being very afraid, and 100 being very confident in their abilities.
- Have the recent police homicides made you feel less confident in the police? (yes/no)
- Over the last 12 months, do you know of any incidents in your county when a person was fatally wounded by the police? If so, how many?
Not surprisingly, there are highly divergent views among Americans. For example, females were less confident in police abilities (71.91 vs 75.47 on a scale of 1-100) and 4.52% more likely than males to report that the recent police homicides made them feel less confident in the police. Confidence in the police also showed a linear socio-economic gradient with a police rating of 64.13 among those with less than a high school education and a rating of 78.45 among those with a graduate/professional degree. Respondents who thought that there were no police homicides in their County in the past month also indicated more confidence in police, and felt that the recent police homicides did not affect their opinions. However, the largest source of divergence in confidence in police abilities and the largest changes in these opinions due to the recent police homicides are reflected in the racial divide. While non-Hispanic Whites indicated the highest levels of police confidence (79.38), confidence was slightly lower among Asians/PI (70.74), followed by Hispanics (72.89), and Native Americans (64.30). Non-Hispanic Blacks exhibited the lowest confidence in police ability (49.58) and nearly half of all NH Black respondents felt that the recent homicides made them feel less confident in the police. By comparison, only 17% of NH White respondents felt the same.
The narrative comments to these questions confirmed the obvious: this topic is highly polarizing. Despite the fact that the FBI uses “justifiable homicides” to describe all reported police homicides, and despite the fact that the word homicide simply means the killing of a human by another human, several respondents objected to the use of the word homicide as they felt that this term implied guilt. One respondent felt that “Some of your questions are worded in a biased manner. For example you say ‘police homicides’ when those deaths are not ruled homicides at all.” While another echoed this concern by stating that “to say in one question there were police homicides is wrong. I believe there were only two in New Mexico, that were charged. Homicide is the unlawful killing of someone. 99.9 percent of the police do a great job.”
The data from this survey provide important insight into the divergent opinions and the effects of current events on the public’s confidence in police. But, this doesn’t change that not enough is known about the causes and effects of police homicides. With improved data collection, researchers will be able to answer many important questions, including whether departmental training and community interaction result in fewer homicides, whether police homicides are a reaction to local crime and/or assaults and killings of police officers, whether racial imbalances between police departments and the communities they serve are important predictors of police homicides, and whether trauma and stress resulting from police homicides have an impact on community health and well-being. Studies of these relationships will benefit both law enforcement and civilians, and one way to begin to address this would be through improved collection of police homicide data, in order to begin to uncover the causes and effects of these incidentsⱡⱡ.
- Fyfe, James. 2002. “Too Many Missing Cases: Holes in Our Knowledge about Police Use of Force.” Justice Research and Policy 4: 87-102.
- Klinger, David A. 2012. “On the Problems and Promise of Research on Lethal Police Violence.” Homicide Studies 16(1): 78-96.
- Lowery, Wesley. 2014. “How Many Police Shootings a Year? No one Knows.” Washington Post (online) September 8, 2014.
- Youth Justice Coalition. 2014. “Don’t Shoot to Kill: Homicides Resulting from Law Enforcement Use of Force Within LA County, 2000-2014.” http://www.youth4justice.org/.
ⱡⱡWe have recently partnered with Fatal Encounters (FE)ⱡⱡ to produce a widely disseminated, publicly searchable database of police homicides for the past 15 years. In addition to supporting their efforts to collect these data, we have submitted two grant proposals (NIJ and NIH) to merge data from several sources at the level of law enforcement agencies. The first data set—the National Police Homicide Database (NPHD)—collects data on the precise street location of police homicides, decedent characteristics, local area crime, socio-demographics, assaults/killings of police officers, and police department policies and procedures; this database will be used to test the determinants of police homicides. The second database we propose to create is called the National Police Homicide Contextual Database (NPHCD) and will contain geo-coded records of all police homicides from 2000-2015; these data will be used to test the effects of police homicides on communities. We are specifically proposing to study how concentrations of police homicides may affect population health disparities, given the known direct and ambient impact of violence in communities. We are currently seeking funding from both government and private agencies, in order to support these efforts.