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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

“A Tragic And Unacceptable Pattern”: What America’s Police Departments Don’t Want You To Know

Michael Brown’s death was part of a tragic and unacceptable pattern: Police officers in the United States shoot and kill civilians in shockingly high numbers. How many killings are there each year? No one can say for sure, because police departments don’t want us to know.

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, in 2013 there were 461 “justifiable homicides” by police — defined as “the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty.” In all but three of these reported killings, officers used firearms.

The true number of fatal police shootings is surely much higher, however, because many law enforcement agencies do not report to the FBI database. Attempts by journalists to compile more complete data by collating local news reports have resulted in estimates as high as 1,000 police killings a year. There is no way to know how many victims, like Brown, were unarmed.

By contrast, there were no fatal police shootings in Great Britain last year. Not one. In Germany, there have been eight police killings over the past two years. In Canada — a country with its own frontier ethos and no great aversion to firearms — police shootings average about a dozen a year.

Liberals and conservatives alike should be outraged at the frequency with which police in this country use deadly force. There is no greater power that we entrust to the state than the license to take life. To put it mildly, misuse of this power is at odds with any notion of limited government.

I realize that the great majority of police officers never fire their weapons in the line of duty. Most cops perform capably and honorably in a stressful, dangerous job; 27 were killed in 2013, according to the FBI. Easy availability of guns means that U.S. police officers — unlike their counterparts in Britain, Japan or other countries where there is appropriate gun control — must keep in mind the possibility that almost any suspect might be packing heat.

But any way you look at it, something is wrong. Perhaps the training given officers is inadequate. Perhaps the procedures they follow are wrong. Perhaps an “us vs. them” mentality estranges some police departments from the communities they are sworn to protect.

Whatever the reason, it is hard to escape the conclusion that police in this country are much too quick to shoot. We’ve seen the heartbreaking results most recently in the fatal shooting of 28-year-old Akai Gurley, an unarmed man who was suspected of no crime, in the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project, and the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was waving a toy gun around a park in Cleveland.

Which brings me to the issue of race. USA Today analyzed the FBI’s “justifiable homicide” statistics over several years and found that, of roughly 400 reported police killings annually, an average of 96 involved a white police officer killing a black person.

Two years ago, D. Brian Burghart, the editor and publisher of the Reno (Nev.) News & Review, launched FatalEncounters.org, an ambitious attempt to compile a comprehensive crowd-sourced database of fatal police shootings. Reports of the October 2012 killing of a naked, unarmed college student by University of South Alabama police made Burghart wonder how many such shootings there were; the fact that no one knew the answer made him determined to find it.

Burghart recently summed up what he has learned so far: “You know who dies in the most population-dense areas? Black men,” he wrote on Gawker. “You know who dies in the least population-dense areas? Mentally ill men. It’s not to say there aren’t dangerous and desperate criminals killed across the line. But African-Americans and the mentally ill people make up a huge percentage of people killed by police.”

Burghart and others who have attempted to count and analyze police shootings shouldn’t have to do the FBI’s job. All law enforcement agencies should be required to report all uses of deadly force to the bureau, using a standardized format that allows comparisons and analysis. Police departments that have nothing to hide should be eager to cooperate.

The Obama administration has been laudably aggressive in pressing cities with egregiously high rates of police shootings, such as Albuquerque, to reform. But no one can really get a handle on the problem until we know its true scope.

The Michael Brown case presents issues that go beyond race. An unarmed teenager was shot to death. Whatever his color, that’s just not right.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, December 1, 2014

December 4, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Justifiable Homicide, Police Officers | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Badge Does Not Confer Credibility”: Bias Can Strain An Already Difficult Standard In Prosecuting Police

Average people find it difficult to place themselves in the shoes of police officers who live everyday knowing their next call could be their last. So when faced with a shooting by a police officer in questionable circumstances, they give deference to the officer’s decisions.

Jurors usually find that such officers reasonably believed the slain person posed a threat of serious bodily harm or death, justifying deadly force under legal standards.

Prosecutors are keenly aware of this tendency and know they will have difficulty prosecuting such cases. It would be hard, however, to create an alternative legal standard that could better ensure both an officer’s right to safety and the individual’s right to be free from excessive force.

Many minority citizens fear that jurors’ racial biases expand the notion of when it is reasonable for an officer to use deadly force. Indeed, one of the first questions many commentators asked when the decision was announced in the Michael Brown shooting was whether the grand jurors who declined to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him to death, were split along racial lines.

Perceptions of racial bias undermine the legitimacy of the criminal justice system, splitting citizens along racial lines when a white police officer kills an unarmed racial minority.

While we cannot eliminate the possibility for bias in prosecutions, we can make the process more transparent. Local prosecutors should not be faced with the choice of bringing charges against members of the police departments they rely on every day. These cases should automatically be referred to the state attorney general’s office or a special prosecutor who does not have the same perceived conflict of interest.

Jurors should be given clear instructions that an officer’s testimony carries the same weight as that of any other witness and that a badge does not confer credibility.

Criminal prosecutions, however, are not the most effective way to address systemic problems in a department because they focus solely on the actions of an individual officer and not on the organizational culture that likely shaped that conduct. To force broader changes in police practices, advocates should focus on institutional factors that encourage police misconduct, such as the failure to identify, supervise and discipline officers who are prone to misconduct.

 

By: Kami Chavis Simmons, Former Federal Prosecutor, Professor and Director of the Criminal Justice Program at Wake Forest University School of Law; Room for Debate, The New York Times, November 25, 2014

November 30, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Grand Juries, Police Officers | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Please Shoot Me”: Police Are Entirely Committed To The Logic Of Deterrence, While Ignoring The Costs Of Escalation

In the first part of VICE News’s extraordinary five-part documentary on ISIS, released earlier this month, a bearded and strangely innocent-looking young press officer who goes by the name Abu Mosa invites America to attack his movement. “I say to America that the Islamic Caliphate has been established, and we will not stop,” Abu Mosa says with a shy smile, a Kalashnikov leaning easily in his right hand. “Don’t be cowards and attack us with drones. Instead send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq. We will humiliate them everywhere, God willing, and we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House.”

America has since begun attacking ISIS with air and drone strikes, and on Wednesday, in response to the beheading of James Foley, a photojournalist, Barack Obama reiterated his commitment to the fight. But the president has not obliged Abu Mosa’s wish for America to send in ground forces. For one thing, the airstrikes seem to have been reasonably successful in attaining the limited American goal of aiding Kurdish forces to recapture territory from ISIS. Inserting ground troops risks subjecting American forces to casualties and mission creep. In the video of Mr Foley’s death, his ISIS executioner threatens to kill another hostage unless America ceases its airstrikes. Mr Obama shows no signs of letting any of this affect his decisions. As a rule, it is a bad idea to let your actions in a confrontation be guided by the other guy’s provocations.

Not everyone understands this rule, though. In St Louis on Monday, two police officers responded to a report that a distraught man had stolen two cans of soda from a convenience store, and was carrying a steak knife. The officers stepped out of the car and immediately drew their guns on the man, 25-year-old Kajieme Powell, ordering him to drop the knife. Mr Powell refused, and instead began vaguely walking towards them, saying “Shoot me!” The officers opened fire, killing Mr Powell just seconds after they had arrived—nine shots in all, pop-pop-pop, some fired after Mr Powell had fallen to the ground. All of this can be clearly seen on the video of the confrontation that a bystander recorded on his smartphone, released Wednesday by the St Louis police department in the apparent belief that it exonerates the officers involved.

To my eye, the notion that this video is exculpatory evidence seems absurd. A report of a disturbed man waving around a steak knife and making angry pronouncements is supposed to end with a team of police officers surrounding the offender, trying to talk him down, and, if persuasion fails, eventually subduing him and sending him in for psychiatric evaluation. Nothing suggests police officers faced an emergency requiring them to use their guns. The video convinced me only that the officers should be prosecuted, and that the St Louis police department needs to be completely overhauled, starting with its rules on the use of deadly force. Missouri should also revise its justifiable-homicide laws, which, as Yishai Schwartz explains in the New Republic, make it “almost impossible” to convict police officers who claim they acted in self-defence.

But there’s an interesting similarity here. In both of these cases, someone is provoking an attack from a more powerful actor. Why would anyone do that?

When force is used, it is often to influence or change the behaviour of a foe. The logic is that of deterrence: stop misbehaving, or we will attack you. Yet adversaries often understand that the deployment of force is not cost-free. The risk of escalation may ultimately make a conflict more costly than the initial deterrence was worth. This trade-off is a characteristic of many classic confrontations: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, and so on.

In the case of ISIS, at least some elements apparently believe that luring America into a ground conflict will help them achieve their aims. For Islamic radical groups, fighting America is also great for recruitment, particularly if there is an opportunity to kill American soldiers. And if ISIS can escalate the conflict to the point where America no longer wants to bear the costs and pulls out, it will have scored a tremendous victory.

It is a bit hard to figure out what Mr Powell was trying to accomplish in St Louis, as he appears to have been mentally off-kilter, at least on that afternoon. (In a tragic moment in the video, before police arrive, a passerby advises him to back down: “That’s not the way you do it, man.”) But he was clearly trying to provoke police to shoot him, perhaps in the belief that this would illustrate the inequities of police brutality. More importantly, the police who confronted him, like police throughout the confrontations in Missouri, seem to be entirely committed to the logic of deterrence, while ignoring the costs of escalation. This is a problem of culture, of attitude, of legal impunity, and above all else of the pervasive use of firearms, which rapidly escalate minor disputes into potentially deadly confrontations. The police’s deployment of force have left two dead and a town overwhelmed by protests and riots.

In Iraq, America seems to be weighing the risks of escalation very carefully before deploying force. In Missouri, however, the police seem to be deploying force without thinking about the consequences at all. And the cost of attacking the city’s poorest and most beleaguered people is proving very high indeed.

 

By: Matt Steinglass, Democracy in America, August 22, 2014

August 25, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, St Louis Police Department, Terrorists | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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