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“Without A True Count, There’s Even Less Accountability”: How Many People Are Killed By Police? We’re Only Beginning To Find Out

Amazingly, although people are killed by police virtually every day in the United States, there is no government agency, no bureaucracy, and no database that counts them all. Nor is there any national prayer wall or shrine where images of the dead and their stories are collected in an effort to portray them as individuals.

Last week, almost simultaneously, The Washington Post and The Guardian US unveiled large-scale journalistic projects that tried to supply a comprehensive, independent accounting of citizens killed by police since the beginning of this year. Same story, similar journalistic standards. So far, The Guardian story, with its interactive database linking to photos and stories of the dead, has come closest to filling the shameful gap.

In what Lee Glendinning, the new editor of The Guardian US, called “the most comprehensive public accounting of deadly force in the US,” the site launched “The Counted,” an interactive database of those killed by police since January 1 that includes the names, locations, background, race, means of death—along with, when possible, photos and stories of the dead.

Combining traditional reporting and “verified crowd sourcing,” Glendinning said the idea was to “build on the work on databases already out there,” most of which, she said, “are largely numbers and statistics. We wanted to build on these by telling the stories of these people’s lives, over a whole year, every day, and update them every day.”

Most Americans probably assume that some agency keeps track of the people who have been killed by police, but no such authoritative clearinghouse exists. There are partial counts by various bureaucracies, as well as by organizations like KilledByPolice.net and FatalEncounters.org, but none are complete.

“You could tell me how many people, the absolute number, bought a book on Amazon,” FBI director James Comey himself complained in a speech last month. “It’s ridiculous, I can’t tell you how many people were shot by police in this country last week, last year, the last decade.”

Some of the difficulties in keeping count are due to the reluctance of local police departments to file reports when they kill someone. But, as Tom McCarthy wrote at The Guardian, “The structural and technical challenges to compiling uniform data from the 18,000-plus local law enforcement agencies in the US far exceeds the reporting problem, in some cases.”

Without a true count, there is even less accountability. “A counting is a prerequisite,” Glendinning said, for any kind of “informed public debate about the severity of the problem.”

The Guardian didn’t attempt to determine whether the deaths were justified or unjustified. But they did find some disturbing trends and alarming sloppiness:

  • In the first five months of 2015, 464 people were killed by law enforcement—that’s twice as many as calculated by the US government’s official public records. (The FBI “counted 461 ‘justifiable homicides’ by law enforcement in all of 2013, the latest year for which official data is available.”)
  • Of those 464 killed, 102 people were unarmed.
  • Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people: “32% of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, as were 25% of Hispanic and Latino people, compared with 15% of white people killed.”
  • Fourteen of the fatalities occurred while the victim was in custody, including the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
  • The analysis revealed five people killed by police whose names have not been publicly released before.

A day before the Guardian story broke, The Washington Post came out with similar trends and numbers based on its own in-depth investigation of police-caused fatalities. (“We knew they were working on something, and they knew we were,” Glendinning said, but she believes the timing is coincidence.) One big difference between the two projects is that the Post limits its data to death by police shootings, which, it found, have amounted to 385 so far this year. The Guardian’s 464 police-caused deaths in the same period, however, also include those by Taser (27), vehicle, and other means. Hence, Eric Garner’s death while the NYPD held him in a chokehold wouldn’t be included in the Post tally. (Mother Jones compares some of the two publications’ findings here.)

It was probably the one-two punch of the Post and Guardian investigations that led to an uncharacteristically quick political response. Within 48 hours after the pieces appeared, senators Cory Booker and Barbara Boxer proposed a plan to “force all American law enforcement agencies to report killings by their officers” to the Department of Justice.

Another difference between the two projects is that, while both will collect data through the end of the year, the Post’s database—and any photos, stories and interactive bells and whistles that might accompany it—won’t go public, it said, until “a future date.”

And so in terms of emotional impact, The Guardian has the jump. In fact, “The Counted” reminds me of the Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times project, “Portraits of Grief,” which ran more than 1,800 capsule biographies, with photos when possible, of those killed on 9/11. “Portraits” was a daily feature, filling one full page, sometimes two, and ran through New Year’s Eve 2001. Like today’s police killings projects, “Portraits” began, the Times wrote, “as an imperfect answer to a journalistic problem, the absence of a definitive list of the dead…”

The portraits, now archived online, were based on a phalanx of reporters’ interviews with families and friends of the dead, and gave more personal snapshots (like “Taking Care of Mozard: Maria Isabel Ramirez”) than either the Post or Guardian have the resources to muster today.

The Guardian stories are presented almost Facebook-style in a photo mosaic of faces. You could find yourself, as I did, clicking on faces to see whether they fit or explode the stereotypes you might have of someone who would be killed by the cops, all the time overwhelmed at the scale of the problem.

Beyond the database, The Guardian is running almost-daily features on how police violence affects various communities, including deaths of the mentally ill, women, Latinos, and the elderly (“about six elderly people a month,” it finds).

By the way, that figure of 464 people killed by police in the first five months of 2015 has climbed, as of today, to 489.

 

By: Leslie Savan, The Nation, June 8, 2015

June 14, 2015 Posted by | Law Enforcement, Police Shootings, Police Violence | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The NFL Is Not A Nonprofit”: So Why Does It Get To Act Like One?

The National Football League generates about $9.5 billion in revenue each year. It is, by Forbes’ estimate, the most valuable sports league in the world. Its commissioner, Roger Goodell, makes $44 million in a year. And yet, the NFL’s head office has long been allowed to operate as a tax-exempt nonprofit—as if its sole purpose for existence wasn’t to extract wads of cash from the wallets of American sports fans.

This week two Democratic senators have announced bills that would put this obvious farce to an end. In response to the outrage swirling over the NFL’s apparent tolerance of domestic abuse, New Jersey’s Cory Booker introduced legislation that would prohibit tax-free status for all major sports leagues. (The National Hockey League and PGA Tour are also nonprofits.) Washington state’s Maria Cantwell, meanwhile, is offering a bill targeted directly at the NFL’s tax-exempt status, prompted by its refusal to force the Washington, D.C., franchise to change its name from a racial slur against Native Americans.

Even if it’s taken a series of national scandals to give this idea a fresh push, it’s nice to see common sense gaining more steam. Previously, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma (whose state lacks an NFL team) and the House Ways and Means Committee have proposed legislation that would strip sports leagues of their nonprofit status. But if senators representing Giants, Jets, and Seahawks fans suddenly feel comfortable getting behind this idea, that’s progress.

Chances are, yanking away the NFL’s tax exemption wouldn’t drastically change its finances. Only the league office, which considers itself a trade association for its clubs—just like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the National Dairy Council—is a nonprofit; the teams themselves are purely for-profit. As a result, pro football’s copious TV revenues are taxed once they’re passed down to the franchises. A separate, for-profit company called NFL Ventures, co-owned by the teams, handles the league’s merchandising and sponsorship earnings. Finally, the league office often operates at a loss—in 2011 it finished more than $77 million in the red, while in 2012 it only had $9 million left at year’s end. Without profits, of course, there’s nothing for the government to tax.

The case of Major League Baseball is instructive for what might happen to the NFL if it were to lose its exemption. In 2007, MLB gave up its nonprofit status, reportedly because of new IRS rules that would have required public disclosure of its executives’ salaries. Later, it said the move was “tax-neutral.”

Congress itself doesn’t think the NFL’s tax bill would be that big. Coburn has suggested that taxing the NFL and NHL alone would raise about $91 million per year. But the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation—probably a bit more credible in this instance—believes ending tax exemptions for all sports leagues would bring in just under $11 million per year. Booker hopes his bill would raise about $100 million over a decade, which would go to support domestic abuse programs. That’s a mere trickle compared with the geyser of cash the NFL generates each year.

So if money isn’t really the issue, what is? It’s about principles. Letting the NFL operate tax-free makes a mockery of the entire concept behind nonprofits, which is that we should give a special break to organizations that do the useful, unprofitable work normal corporations won’t.

The NFL’s lawyers like to point out that the IRS has a long history of treating sports leagues as tax-exempt. The government first gave the league office its nonprofit status in 1942, they note, and hasn’t questioned it since. Citing this history is a reasonable response to critics, such as Gregg Easterbrook, who claim that the NFL is simply benefiting from a special tax loophole that came about thanks to some brilliant lobbying in the 1960s—Congress actually inserted “professional football leagues” into the list of nonprofit trade groups covered by Section 501(c)(6) of the tax code. The code had previously covered “business leagues, chambers of commerce, real-estate boards, or boards of trade.” But this legislative carve-out doesn’t explain why, for instance, pro hockey and pro golf also get to operate tax-free.

The problem is that the NFL should never have been considered a trade association in the first place. Love or hate the lobbying they do in Washington, trade groups are supposed to work for the benefit of entire industries, and be open to any business in that industry that would like to join. If you own a butter-making factory, then by God, you can pay dues and become a member of the American Butter Institute. The NFL, in contrast, operates a legally sanctioned sports cartel. It’s not in the league’s interest to let in more teams, because that could hurt the value of existing franchises.

“To be a 501(c)(6) organization, anyone who meets your requirements for who’s part of the industry has to be allowed to join the association as a member,” Jeffrey Tenenbaum, chairman of the nonprofit organizations group at the law firm Venable, explained to ESPN last year. “With professional sporting leagues, that’s not the case; it’s a very closed circle. You can’t start a professional football team and join the NFL.”

If NFL executives were out lobbying on behalf of college football teams or arena football, we might have a different story. But they’re not. The league office is the enforcement wing and rule-making body of a profit-making operation. The same goes for leagues like the NHL, which exist for the express purpose of excluding competition.

The deeper issue at play here is that nonprofits exist to do things for the public good—things that for-profit companies generally don’t do. That’s why we give nonprofits a break from the IRS. And it’s why the government should be stingy about which kinds of organizations count and which don’t. We know that sports leagues won’t suddenly disappear if we treat them like normal corporations and ask them to pay, at most, a few million dollars to the government. Major League Baseball certainly hasn’t gone anywhere. The NFL won’t either.

 

By: Jordan Weissmann, Senior Business and Economics Correspondent; Slate, September 18, 2014

September 21, 2014 Posted by | IRS, National Football League, Tax Exempt Status | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Pitting The Poor Against The Other Poor”: America Should Treat All Poor People As Well As It Treats Poor Veterans

The message about American soldiers is almost always the same across partisan lines: They are hard-working, courageous, brave heroes, the essence of upstanding, wholesome, and industrious citizenry.

This picture may well be true. But there’s a troubling underbelly to this ideal: Our culture’s respect and admiration for the troops is matched in extremity by its disrespect for the poor.

The poor in this country are often described in polar opposite terms of those employed to exalt soldiers. The poor are takers, morally degenerate, lazy, and so welfare-addicted that they can’t even have life dreams and projects. In our depictions of soldiers and veterans, we construct paragons of virtue. In our depictions of the poor and downtrodden, we construct paragons of vice.

However, lurking behind this contrast is an uncomfortable reality: The two groups substantially overlap.

In 2011, nearly 1 in 7 of our country’s homeless were veterans, nearly 1 in 3 veterans between the ages 18 and 24 were unemployed, and veterans lived in 1 in 5 households poor enough to qualify for low-income heating assistance. Last year, nearly 1 million veterans were on food stamps, and many more doubtlessly received low-income transfer payments like the Earned Income Tax Credit, the kinds of transfers being pilloried by those who decry the “47 percent.”

The poor are often veterans, and veterans are often poor.

This fact occasionally puts conservative lawmakers and commentators who heap disdain on the poor in very tough spots. After all, how do you level rhetorical attacks on the poor and the programs that serve them without also attacking the poor veterans whom we lionize in their capacity as former soldiers?

One way conservatives deal with this tension is to just flatly exclude veterans from their welfare bashing. So for instance, when Senate Republicans sought an accounting of all of the means-tested benefits paid out by the federal government each year, they directed the Congressional Research Service to specifically exclude means-tested welfare programs for veterans. After all, if you are going to construct a list of programs that you intend to trash as wasteful, you can’t have it include means-tested veterans’ health care and means-tested veterans’ pensions. That would be far too disrespectful and intolerably dissonant with pro-troop messaging.

On the liberal side of the aisle, the existence of poor and economically suffering veterans presents a huge rhetorical opportunity, but one that the left constantly manages to bungle. Right now, big name Democrats talk about poor veterans in ways that tend to preserve the notion that they are particularly special. So for instance, when Cory Booker discussed the impact of cutting unemployment insurance on veterans, he emphasized that this was a special crime because “these men and women who fought for our country … are not lazy.” Instead of using this opportunity to defend the poor at large, we get special pleading based on the notion that poor and struggling veterans are somehow different from and more virtuous than the other program beneficiaries.

The more sensible move here, both on the merits and politically, is not to sequester poor veterans off into their own special category of poor people. Such hiving off only reinforces the toxic and illegitimate distinction we make between the deserving and undeserving poor. Instead of separating veterans out, they should be depicted as being very much like most people who find themselves in economic trouble.

The reason why veterans — people who in prior years proved themselves capable of adhering to extreme discipline and undertaking grueling amounts of difficult labor — wind up poor or unemployed is because poverty and unemployment are mainstream conditions that affect huge swaths of our population, not just some mythical class of degenerate scum. Four out of five Americans spend at least one year of their adult life in or near poverty, jobless, or reliant on welfare. Over half of American adults spend at least one year of their life in poverty and nearly 1 in 7 Americans report having been homeless at some point in their life.

As the the President’s Commission on Income Maintenance Programs pointed out in 1969, “our economic and social structure virtually guarantees poverty for millions of Americans. Unemployment and underemployment are basic facts of American life.”

It’s time to reform mainstream understanding of the poor. Ask yourself: If the exemplars of greatness in our society can fall into poverty and unemployment, then who else might be in those ranks alongside them?

 

By: Matt Bruenig, The Week, February 6, 2014

February 7, 2014 Posted by | Poverty, Veterans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Drifting Towards Another Middle East War?”: Remember What Happened When Democrats Supported An Avoidable War With Iraq

As the White House sharpens its criticism of congressional efforts to short-circuit negotiations with Iran via a new sanctions regime, progressives are slowly waking up and smelling the campfire coffee of another Middle East “war of choice.”

In part because active resistance has been limited, there are an awful lot of Democratic fingerprints on the sanctions legislation, and even more de facto defiance of Obama from Democrats who have fallen silent. Here’s how Greg Sargent sums up the current situation:

The basic storyline in recent days has been that the pro-sanctions-bill side is gaining in numbers, while the anti-sanctions-bill side hasn’t — even though the White House has been lobbying Dems very aggressively to back off on this bill, on the grounds that it could imperil the chances for a historic long-term breakthrough with Iran. As Josh Rogin puts it, “the White House’s warnings have had little effect.”

We’re very close now to the 60 votes it needs to pass. The Dem leadership has no plans to bring it to the floor, but there are other procedural ways proponents could try to force a vote. And if the numbers in favor of the bill continue to mount, it could increase pressure on Harry Reid to move it forward. Yes, the president could veto it if it did pass. But we’re actually not all that far away from a veto-proof majority. And in any case, having such a bill pass and get vetoed by the president is presumably not what most Democrats want to see happen.

At TNR, our own Ryan Cooper looks at Cory Booker’s decision to support sanctions, and concludes he’s just not afraid of the heat he will eventually receive from an awakened Democratic Left.

You will hear some Democrats and even a few Republicans claim they are trying to strengthen the adminstration’s hand in their negotiations, but that’s a shuck. The whole idea is to torpedo the talks because Bibi Netanyahu believes they are aimed at the wrong goal: keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons, as opposed to Bibi’s demand that Iran lose its capability of developing nuclear weapons. If that means war, so be it.

This time around, of course, those in the Democratic Party opposing a drift into war have the White House on their side, and the precedent of what happened when a lot of Democrats supported a similarly avoidable war with Iraq. But if antiwar Democrats don’t start making some real noise, the configuration of forces in Congress will continue to deteriorate, and we could be looking at a war foisted on an unwilling commander-in-chief.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, January 14, 2014

January 15, 2014 Posted by | Iran, Iraq War | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Undermining His Own Brand”: Chris Christie Is Afraid Of Competition, His Party’s Base And The Public

If we were making a list of the reasons New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) will struggle to gain national support from his party’s right-wing base, we’d have plenty to work with: The Republican base is already suspicious of Christie — he praised and embraced (literally) President Obama during the response to Hurricane Sandy; he’s accepted expansion of the Affordable Care Act; and he’s referred to elements of the GOP base as “the crazies”; and he’s supported reforms on gun laws.

But on that last one, the governor is, shall we say, evolving.

After months of pressure from both sides of the gun control debate, Gov. Chris Christie today refused to sign three controversial gun control measures sitting on his desk — including a version of a weapon ban that he had called for. […]

[T]he governor completely axed a bill that would ban the Barrett .50 caliber rifle (A3659), which is the most powerful weapon commonly available to civilians. Christie had called for a ban on future sales of the weapon in his own package of violent prevention measures outlined in April.

As we discussed late on Friday, New Jersey’s legislature approved a ban on .50-caliber weapons, which fire ammunition the size of carrots, has the capacity to pierce steel plate armor from several hundred yards away, and can even shoot down airplanes. Christie, with his national ambitions likely in mind, vetoed the ban.

But the Star-Ledger‘s report adds a relevant detail — when Christie offered a series of gun reforms earlier this year, he endorsed a ban on .50-caliber weapons, saying there was no need for consumers to purchase these kinds of firearms. So why would the governor veto a measure he ostensibly supports? Because, Christie said, the proposal bans the weapons that have already been sold in the Garden State.

In other words, if you’re in New Jersey and you already have a .50-caliber weapon that can shoot down an airplane, Christie has no problem with you keeping it around indefinitely. The governor is, however, comfortable with banning the future sales of these guns. How courageous of him.

And this leads to a related point: whatever happened to Chris Christie’s “brand” as a tough, no-nonsense politician who’s not afraid of anything?

The Washington Post noted the interesting timing of the governor’s veto.

Christie’s veto — which his office waited until after 6 p.m. on Friday to announce — drew swift and sharp criticism from gun-control advocates.

As a rule, when politicians have to release important news, but they don’t want anyone to know about it, they wait until late on a Friday afternoon to dump the announcement. Christie and his aides could have let the public know about the veto anytime, but they chose the one part of the week best known for burying the news.

In other words, the governor was comfortable vetoing a measure awfully similar to what he’d already proposed, but he wasn’t exactly proud of himself.

What’s more, note that this comes the same summer in which Christie scheduled a U.S. Senate special election in New Jersey for a Wednesday in mid-October, even though there’s a statewide election a couple of weeks later. It’s a wasteful, expensive move, with no fair rationale. So why did Christie pick this date? Because he was afraid to be on the same ballot as Cory Booker (D), even though the governor has a big lead in the polls.

In other words, Christie is afraid of competition and he’s afraid his party’s base won’t like him and he’s afraid of the mainstream public hearing about his veto of .50-caliber firearms.

So much for the confident leader who doesn’t shy away from a fight.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, August 19, 2013

August 23, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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