Aurora Gets the Attention, But Guns Are Going Off Everywhere
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These are some of the anonymous dead. Their names are occasionally afloat on seas of Internet data or in local news reports. Many are young, even very young; many are people of color; many are wanted by the police for one thing or another; some are crazy; some are armed; some, like Manuel Diaz, are not.
In the end, though, we know remarkably little about these victims of police action. The FBI, which annually tracks every two-bit break-in, car theft, and felony, keeps no comprehensive records of incidents involving police use of deadly force, nor are there comprehensive national records that track what police officers do with their guns. Because of that we have no sense of whether such killings are waxing or waning, whether different cities present different threats, whether increased use of private security guards poses a greater or lesser danger to the public, whether neighborhood watch groups are a blessing or a bane to their neighborhoods. The Trayvon Martins of the world, who could perhaps speak to that last point, are mute.
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report does include a more limited category of “Justifiable Homicide by Weapon, Law Enforcement,” defined as “the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty.” That figure has hovered around 400 annually for the last several years. (In 2010, it was 387, down from 414 in 2009; in 2006, it was 386.)
Would Manuel Diaz fall into that category? Was he a felon? Can running fit the bill for “justifiable homicide”? The FBI does list all police officers killed while on duty, whether they are gunned down deliberately by violent suspects or hit accidentally by a car. (In 2010, the FBI reported, 56 officers died “feloniously,” while 72 were killed “accidentally.”) But the Manuel Diazes of America are not included in the FBI data sets.
Ramarley Graham, 18, followed and shot by New York City police last February, is of little interest to FBI statisticians. But the Graham killing, which has resulted in manslaughter charges against a member of the NYPD, stirred numerous protests in that city. Luther Brown Jr., killed by Stockton, California, police in April, and James Rivera, killed by Stockton police two years ago, stirred community protest as well. Would their names make the FBI list of “justifiable homicide”? Who makes that judgment and on what basis?
The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics has been compiling data on deaths of suspects following arrests, but the information covers just 40 states and only includes arrest fatalities. From January 2003 through December 2009, bureau statistics show 4,813 deaths occurred during “an arrest or restraint process.” Of those, 61% (2,931) were classified as homicides by law enforcement personnel, 11% (541) as suicides, 11% (525) as due to intoxication, 6% (272) as accidental injuries, and 5% (244) were attributed to natural causes. About 42% of the dead were white, 32% were black, and 20% were Hispanic.
Total gun deaths nationwide in 2010? 11,493, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Who Is At Risk?
The lack of authoritative and comprehensive national data on police shootings and the reluctance of local law enforcement departments to release information on the use of deadly force has sent researchers onto the Internet searching for stories and anecdotal evidence. Newspapers looking into the issue must painstakingly gather information and documents from multiple agencies and courts to determine who is being killed and why. One major recent independent effort by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2011 -- undertaken in the wake of community protests over two police shootings in 2010 -- confirmed anecdotal evidence drawn from virtually all major metropolitan areas. If you are a young man, a person of color, and live in a poor urban area, you are far more likely to become a victim of police gunfire than if you are none of those things.