Monday, March 09, 2015

Lethal Acts of Force in 2014 - 1. Introduction

Nobody knows how many people police kill each year.

This fact has been repeated this past year so many times by so many different journalists. Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post wrote an article following the killing of Michael Brown expressing this fact and how outrageous it is.[1]  Lowery pointed out how the Department of Justice does not keep comprehensive data on this crucial statistic, instead leaving it up to each law enforcement agency to choose whether or not to report incidents to the FBI’s database of justifiable homicides by law enforcement.

FBI director James Comey, the guy who heads the agency responsible for telling the public how many people get killed by police each year, even bemoaned this fact in a speech given on February 12, 2015 at Georgetown University. “Reporting by police departments is voluntary and not all departments participate. That means we cannot fully track the number of incidents in which force is used by police, or against police, including non-fatal encounters, which are not reported at all.”[2]   

The thing is, we didn’t used to care. Or notice.

Or I should say, I didn’t notice.

I am a middle class white man living in the suburbs. I have an engineering job. I tune out local news in part because of the depressing never-ending stream of local crime news. I felt that this news was always unimportant and served mostly to drive ratings for local news because of a bloodthirsty public.

If it bleeds, it leads, right?

I mean, I always felt bad when I heard about an officer involved shooting, but I was never moved beyond that.

Every once in a while I’d hear about an incident that sounded like pretty extreme, like Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, that homeless guy in Fullerton.  Yes, I thought, police were probably wrong to use so much force in those cases.  But lethal acts of police force are rare and usually justified. Right?
I first started changing my perspective after I heard about the James Boyd shooting on March 16th. Specifically, after I saw the video.[3]

I was born and raised in Albuquerque, but I don’t live there anymore. Watching James Boyd get gunned down in the foothills in which I often hiked was quite surreal to be honest.  I couldn’t tell if I felt that way though because of the total disregard by the cops for the life of a homeless guy who wasn’t threatening anyone, or if was just sort of a gripping form of nostalgia, in the same way that watching Breaking Bad was a viewing experience that was enhanced by my knowledge of all the landmarks around town.   

The event still doesn’t make any sense to me.  Here’s what I saw.

James Boyd, dressed in this gray sweatshirt thing, was just talking to police about not wanting to hurt anybody. In the video he did not appear to be carrying any sort of weapon, but the Albuquerque police officers present were sure treating him like he had a gun in his hand pointed at them. Then, as Boyd gathers up his stuff to come down to the police officers, instead of arresting him for whatever it was that they were going to arrest him for, someone says “do it!” and an explosion happens. Officers with weird yellow shotguns start approaching him ordering Boyd to “get on the ground! Now!” And then, as Boyd turns to get on the ground, gunshots ring out from somewhere and then from the gun held by the guy wearing the helmet camera. Then, nonsensically, they order Boyd to get his hands out after he’s been shot and is in need of medical care. Boyd’s body twitches as it lies among the cactuses and yucca plants of the New Mexican high desert, and the officers are concerned about some knife clutched between the fingers of this homeless guy’s comatose body. So they shoot him with a couple of beanbag shotgun rounds in the butt as he is ordered to “drop the knife!”  Does Boyd comply? Does he choose not to comply? The knife is attached to the body, and the body is most certainly on the ground at this point. This technicality is ignored by the K9 officer, who allows his leaping German Shepherd-type dog to grab and pull at Boyd’s midsection for a while before the rest of the posse of officers approaches Boyd cautiously, deciding that Boyd probably isn’t going to suddenly get up and charge at them with that knife. 

What the fuck is this bullshit? is what I thought. That guy wasn’t even a threat to officers, yet the officers shot him and then tortured him by firing three beanbag rounds at his butt and attacking him with their dog.

This is how law enforcement officers protect and serve?

“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”

But what was even weirder about this incident was what followed. Lots of people really cared.
There were protest marches through downtown Albuquerque! People carrying signs protesting police brutality right in my hometown, with slogans about killer cops and acrostics making the point that APD could also stand for “Another Person Dead”. [4]   And the protests didn’t stop. Days after the first protest, people with Guy Fawkes masks from the group Anonymous made some homemade signs and marched out on Central by the university. Officers in riot gear and armored trucks confronted protestors by displaying assault rifles and using tear gas to quell the more violent protestors as the night progressed.[5]  This was some insane big city shit right in the heart of the Duke City.

And this wasn’t just a small troupe of angry Burqueños protesting over some local hobo in the foothills. I read think pieces about the James Boyd incident in the New York Times and the Guardian. The Department of Justice released its report on APD’s pattern and practice of use of excessive force not long after the March protests.[6]  For a brief time, the whole nation focused on the Albuquerque Police Department.     

But James Boyd’s was only the first of many police killings to gain widespread coverage.
Of course the most famous police shooting incident in 2014 happened at the end of summer in the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.  The killing of Michael Brown sparked huge protests sustained for many weeks, and the corruption and incompetence of the Ferguson Police Department was in the spotlight for the nation to see. 

The Michael Brown incident, happening just days after John Crawford III was shot and killed in a Beavercreek, Ohio Walmart, felt like the straw that broke the camel’s back. Michael Brown’s death at the hands of white police officer Darren Wilson was not all that unusual or egregious by the standards we have become so used to. But the mostly white police force’s harsh reaction to the mostly black protests that followed the incident exposed the deep distrust that exists between law enforcement and communities of color, as Barack Obama put it in a speech delivered after a grand jury declined to indict Officer Wilson.[7]

“Is it getting better? Is it getting worse?”

2014 seemed like the year of the officer involved shooting. This was the year that Michael Brown got gunned down after stealing some cigars. This was the year Eric Garner of Staten Island gasped for breath after being put in a chokehold by an officer investigating the crime of selling untaxed cigarettes. This was the year 12-year-old Tamir Rice of Cleveland got shot and killed for playing with a toy gun in a park. This was the year John Crawford III of Beavercreek, Ohio got stalked and killed by a police officer after taking a Crosman MK-177 air rifle off the shelf and continuing shopping (the rifle is still available on Walmart’s website[8]). 2014 was the year “hands up, don’t shoot!” became a protest slogan, when NBA stars like LeBron James wore a shirt emblazoned with Eric Garner’s tragically famous last words, “I can’t breathe!”  2014 was the year some of us had to be reminded that Black Lives Matter.

But while it seemed like police were killing more people now than in years past, no one can say for certain.

The FBI numbers that FBI director James Comey called out for being incomplete pointed towards a trend of increasing numbers of justifiable police-committed homicides. The FBI’s data for 2013 was released in November of 2014 as part of the annual Uniform Crime Report and showed that 461 people had been killed by police in 2013, representing the highest number in two decades and the third consecutive increase in the annual toll.[9]  But experts interviewed by the USA Today’s Kevin Johnson were quick to indicate that the increase could simply be explained by more police departments choosing to report to the FBI rather than because police officers killing more people.  University of Nebraska criminologist Samuel Walker said it was “irresponsible that we don’t have a complete set of numbers,” and University of South Carolina criminologist Geoff Alpert called the voluntary reporting structure “an embarrassment.”[10]

There is another official government source of police homicides besides the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) keeps a tally of arrest related deaths. This is due to the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2000, which was amended in 2003 to include arrest related deaths. 

But the BJS data suffers from the same FBI problem of underreporting by law enforcement agencies. In the latest year for which data was collected, 2009, the BJS found 497 people had been killed by police.[11]  Of the 17,985 law enforcement agencies in existence in the United States, only 417 reported an arrest related death in 2009, which includes not only police homicides but also suicides and accidental deaths.[12]  

The Act was allowed to expire in 2006, but Congress passed a renewed Death in Custody Reporting Act, sponsored by Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, in 2014. Despite the lousy rate of reporting by law enforcement agencies in the past, Blumenthal was upbeat about it when the bill passed Congress. “Hopefully there will be better compliance and enforcement than existed then, and also more cooperation,” Blumenthal said.[13]  Hopefully.

There is another law that would seem to mandate tallies of police homicides. In 1994 congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which included a mandate that the Department of Justice gather data and publish an annual report about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers. 21 years later, we are still awaiting the first such annual report on excessive force.[14]

The fact is, though it seems like there are more officer involved shootings than before, we can’t really tell.  Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder of UCLA’s Center for Policing Equity, put it this way in an interview with the Associated Press’s Allen G. Breed.

"Is it getting better? Is it getting worse? What are the actual numbers?" asks Goff. "You know, when a plane crashes, it feels all of a sudden like it's not safe to fly. But if you look at the statistics, it's way safer to fly — and always has been — than to drive a car."[15]

“No one is keeping track of how many American citizens are shot by their police. This is crazy,” lamented Kyle Wagner of Deadspin.[16]

Well, not no one.

“An impossibly ambitious project”

There have been a few attempts to develop a crowdsourced database compiling every death at the hands of police. One is the US Police Shootings Data started by Deadspin. The Deadspin database instructed readers to Google each date and look for any incidence of a police officer discharging a weapon and striking someone, whether or not the person lived or died.  Then the user inputs the data about race, age, gender, whether or not the person was armed, and what kind of weapon the decedent had if any, into the database using a Google form.  The database was introduced by Kyle Wagner shortly after news about the death of Michael Brown became known, and was originally intended to investigate every day from 2011 through 2014.  He described it as “an impossibly ambitious project”.[17]  This has proven to be a pretty accurate statement: while user participation was initially very high, only one entry to the database has been attempted since January 29, 2015 (I wrote this on March 6, 2015). Still, the effort seems to have collected data from 60% of the dates listed between 2011 and 2014.

Another crowdsourced effort was started by D. Brian Burghart of the Reno News & Review. First conceived in 2012, the Fatal Encounters database is intended to document every death through police interaction dating back to 2000.  It is more comprehensive so far than the Deadspin database. Fatal Encounters found over 800 fatal encounters with police in 2014, and it contains some impressively specific features, like an attempt at documenting the exact address of each incident, manner of death of the decedent, whether or not the decedent had symptoms of mental illness, and what the final verdict by the district attorney was for each incident.[18]

But so far the longest list of people killed by police is run by the aptly-named (I’m going to abbreviate this KBP throughout this project) is run by an anonymous website administrator who also runs a site called Pig State News about reports of police brutality and excessive force. But while the perspective of the site administrator may be from an anti-cop viewpoint, the list of names comes directly from reputable local television stations and newspapers. 

KBP started on May 1, 2013 and has kept a running tally of individuals killed by police that it finds by scraping information from seemingly every media outlet in the United States. This is its mission statement:
Corporate news reports of people killed by nonmilitary law enforcement officers, whether in the line of duty or not, and regardless of reason or method. Inclusion implies neither wrongdoing nor justification on the part of the person killed or the officer involved. The post merely documents the occurrence of a death.[19]
The website is simply an html table with an individual’s name, age, gender, race (if known), the state the incident occurred in, the date that the incident was first noticed by KBP, and a link to a news site describing the officer involved shooting. In January 2015, the site tallied its 2000th record of a death caused by a police officer in the United States since May 1, 2013.

Because it is the most comprehensive list out there, KBP has started to become a source for news articles referring to the number of people killed by police each year.  KQED in San Francisco analyzed the locations of all California arrest-related deaths using data from[20] The site is often used as a source for Huffington Post articles.[21]  Lefty blogs and libertarian magazines discovered the site in 2014.[22][23]

KBP’s list includes not only people who die from on-duty police shootings, but also people who die after being tased, beaten, or restrained. The list includes officers who kill people while driving in their cars (both police vehicles and private vehicles), off-duty cops who commit murders, and suspicious deaths in prisons.  

I would argue that maybe not all of these deaths deserve to count against America’s police forces.

FiveThirtyEight looked into this data to estimate the true number of “the sort of police killings the government might be expected to keep track of.”[24] Reuben Fischer-Baum and Al Johri took a random sample of 146 incidents listed on the website (at the time this accounted for 10% of the incidents listed) and investigated each link to determine whether or not the incident should count. They found that 85% of the incidents were clear-cut police shootings occurring when a police officer shot someone in the line of duty. 8% were found to be taser or restraint related deaths (which should maybe count), and 7% were incidents that occurred outside the line of duty, or accidental deaths (which shouldn’t count).

Using these percentages, Fischer-Baum and Johri estimated that 1,250 to 1,350 deaths of the type that should count in a government database had occurred between May 1, 2013 and August of 2014.  This resulted in a rate of about 1,000 lethal acts of force per year. 

I got questions, man

Just like so many others, I wanted to know the answer to this question too, about how many people died in 2014 due to a police officer’s lethal act of force.  But I also had other questions. How many of these people were black? How many were white? How many were Hispanic or Latino? How many were armed? How many were armed with guns, or knives, or some other weapon, or nothing at all? Where did these lethal acts happen? When did they happen? Why did they happen? Was the police officer justified in taking another individual’s life?

I’m afraid I couldn’t find answers to these questions with the data that was out there.
So I decided to create my own database. 

I checked into each and every link provided by and googled as much information as I could to analyze each of the incidents listed in 2014.  I started looking into these questions in December of 2014, and I stayed up late at night to research these events, using as much of my free time as possible to satisfy my own curiosity. It took me three months to compile this data, and a couple more weeks after that to find the right words to talk about it. But I have finally come up with answers that are both disturbing and enlightening. 

[1] Lowery, Wesley. “How Many Police Shootings a Year? No One Knows.” Washington Post, September 8, 2014.

[2] Comey, James B. “Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race.” Remarks as delivered February 12, 2015 at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

[3] “Police Helmet Camera Captures Fatal Shooting of James Boyd Armed With a Knife As He’s Turning Away.”

[4] Perez, Nicole. “Hundreds Protest Police Shooting of Homeless Man”. Albuquerque Journal, March 26, 2014.

[5] Lohmann, Patrick, and Nicole Perez. “Showdown in Albuquerque”. Albuquerque Journal, March 31, 2014.

[6] U.S. Department of Justice. “Summary of Department of Justice’s Findings – Albuquerque Police Department Investigation”. April 10, 2014.

[7] Obama, Barack. “Remarks by the President After Announcement of the Decision by the Grand Jury in Ferguson, Missouri”. Remarks as delivered November 24, 2014 at the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, White House, Washington, D.C.

[8] Walmart. “Crosman MK-177 Tactical Air Rifle, Black”. .  Accessed March 6, 2015.

[9] Johnson, Kevin. “Police Killings Highest in Two Decades.” USA Today, November 11, 2014.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Burch, Andrea M. “Arrest-Related Deaths, 2003-2009 – Statistical Tables”. Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 17, 2011.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Gross, Allie, and Bryan Schatz. “Congress Is Finally Going to Make Local Law Enforcement Report How Many People They Kill”. Mother Jones, December 17, 2014.

[14] Doyle, Michael. “Data on Police Shootings Is Hard to Find”. McClatchy DC, August 20, 2014.

[15] Breed, Allen G. “Statistics Lacking in Debate Over Police Behavior”. Associated Press, December 7, 2014.

[16] Wagner, Kyle. “We’re Compiling Every Police-Involved Shooting in America. Help Us.” Deadspin, August 20, 2014.

[17] Wagner, Kyle. “Deadspin Police-Shooting Database Update: We’re Still Going”. Deadspin, August 27, 2014.

[18] Burghart, D. Brian. Fatal Encounters.

[19] “Killed By Police”.

[20] Green, Matthew, with database and maps by Kari Mah. “Every Police-Related Homicide Reported Last Year in California: Crowdsourced Map and Database”. The Lowdown (KQED blog), January 28, 2015.

[21] Fleetwood, Blake. “The Slaughter Continues: 176 Civilians Killed by Police So Far in 2015”. Huffington Post, March 6, 2015.

[22] Shackford, Scott. “More Than 1,000 People Have Been Killed by Police in 2014”. Reason, December 9, 2014.

[23] Revmcpherson. “Body Count & New Cases to Watch (2/15)”. DailyKos, February 22, 2015.

[24] Fischer-Baum, Reuben, and Al Johri. “Another (Much Higher) Count of Homicides by Police”. FiveThirtyEight, August 25, 2014.

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