Free Markets, Free People

Exactly how often do cops shoot people?

Well, actually, we really don’t know.

D.Brian Burghart is the editor of the Reno News & Review, the city’s alt-weekly. Driving home one day, he came across the aftermath of a police shooting, and became curious about it. So he started to look for the figures on how often officer-involved shootings happen. And he couldn’t find them. Anywhere.

Nowhere could I find out how many people died during interactions with police in the United States. Try as I might, I just couldn’t wrap my head around that idea. How was it that, in the 21st century, this data wasn’t being tracked, compiled, and made available to the public? How could journalists know if police were killing too many people in their town if they didn’t have a way to compare to other cities? Hell, how could citizens or police? How could cops possibly know “best practices” for dealing with any fluid situation? They couldn’t.

So, he decided to create one. He’s spent the last two years building a crowd-sourced database of officer-involved shootings at Fatal Encounters. And it hasn’t been easy, as he explains:

The biggest thing I’ve taken away from this project is something I’ll never be able to prove, but I’m convinced to my core: The lack of such a database is intentional. No government—not the federal government, and not the thousands of municipalities that give their police forces license to use deadly force—wants you to know how many people it kills and why.

It’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence. What evidence? In attempting to collect this information, I was lied to and delayed by the FBI, even when I was only trying to find out the addresses of police departments to make public records requests. The government collects millions of bits of data annually about law enforcement in its Uniform Crime Report, but it doesn’t collect information about the most consequential act a law enforcer can do.

I’ve been lied to and delayed by state, county and local law enforcement agencies—almost every time. They’ve blatantly broken public records laws, and then thumbed their authoritarian noses at the temerity of a citizen asking for information that might embarrass the agency. And these are the people in charge of enforcing the law.

Frankly, I find this all too easy to believe. After all, a database of officer-involved shootings would be an enormously useful thing to have for the police, in order to draw lessons about best practices. But, an even more important use is for the public to use the data to provide better visibility and accountability for police operations. And the latter reason, I strongly suspect, is precisely why the police don’t want such a database. The police interest in coming up with best practices is far outweighed by their interest in preventing increased transparency.

The attitude of the police seems to be that of Colonel Jessup in “A Few Good Men”:

I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it.

But, here’s the thing: The very essence of a free society is the open ability to question the manner of how those we entrust to defend us provide that defense. It’s what prevents us from becoming a police state. I would argue that we’re already on the cusp of becoming one.

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11 Responses to Exactly how often do cops shoot people?

  • Dale, this is an amazing claim.

    My flabbers are totally gasted. Have you had any follow-ups from anyone?

    • It’s been pretty well documented else-where that these stats aren’t collected — or at least not published — by the Federal government for a while. And that’s odd, because they collect data on every other d*mn thing.

      I was not aware of the regional suppression of the data. I’m glad someone is doing something about it.

      • Yeah. Much as it makes my teeth ache to say this, there may have to be a Federal law making the collection of this data mandatory. Otherwise, I can see a lot of legal reasons a department would be very loath to part with information just out of an abundance of caution.

        • Maybe. I don’t see any of our congress-critters getting outraged enough to move it through the arduous capital hill process. Certainly (a bit OT, sorry) Diane Feinstein wasn’t mad at the CIA until she found out they were spying on her too.

          And the VA experience has taught up that data can and will be fudged.

          Maybe just mandatory body cams would be a start?

          For now … these crowd-sourced approaches are probably as good as it’s going to get for “we, the ruled”.

        • Interesting. I just found this at McClatchy…

          > Lawmakers recognized the need for reliable information in 1994, when they passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. As part of the 354-page package, Congress ordered that “the Attorney General shall, through appropriate means, acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers.”

          > The 1994 law further directed the Justice Department to “publish an annual summary of the data acquired” concerning excessive force. The provision was inserted by senators, records show. At the time, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee was Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, now the vice president of the United States.


          > Nonetheless, the annual reports required by Congress in the 1994 law were never produced.

          So … I guess that even if the Congress-critters do the right thing, it simply won’t be complied with.

          • Very different things.
            First, define “excessive force”. Maabe it’s in the statute. Dunno. But it going to be a judgment call, any way you look at it.
            Second, people pass laws all the time without any means or intent to see them followed. They are essentially only “feel good” shows.
            Same thing with your VA point. Apples and oranges. Every police-caused fatality is going to be reported somewhere. A lot of what the VA was doing went undetected BECAUSE it was a matter only known within the VA.

  • Good grief, I would never in my life have thought this data wasn’t collected and kept SOMEWHERE.

    Boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

  • Sure the data is collected – it’s a statistic used for gun control, or taser control, or choke hold control (fists, feet and whatever, which IS a category).
    The deaths are listed somewhere, you just have to be aware the numbers of ‘shot by the cops’ are being used to argue for better gun control to keep the cops from getting shot.
    Not exactly like the FBI has ‘killed by good-guy’, ‘killed by bad-guy’ as sorting options.
    A little disturbing, no?

  • There is an interesting data set – the layout of which is given in a PDF document – I haven’t looked for an actual ‘tape’ yet, but this is the data layout.
    data Locations 154-156 give ’cause’.
    You can infer things from how they are reported as I looked over the codes, there appeared to be a lot of ways to isolate probable incidents, the wheat from the chaff as it were.
    A little further on I came across this really cool ‘recode’ – 130 Legal intervention (Y35,Y89.0) – which is a ’cause recode’.

    If ‘legal’ means what we probably all think it means, it would probably give you a solid ball park figure.

  • I’d give you the table here – but she does not format so well senor… I must needs just give you the single line item and headings. (see page 41)

    Here is the ‘legal intervention’ line for Table 10 – injury by firearms, by age, 2010.

    All ages – 412,
    1-4 years – 1,
    5-14 years – 1,
    15-24 years – 74,
    25-34 years – 102,
    35-44 years – 108,
    45-54 years – 70,
    55-64 years – 46,
    65-74 years – 9,
    75-84 years – 1

  • There are many groups with experience in collating media reports…remember the people doing Iraq casualties, and the same now for Syria. That would be useful if only to compare to the CDC’s official stats.

    I’m also not surprised that there was already a law passed but nothing was done. This seems to be the new way of ruling: laws are merely “suggestions” for the executive branch.