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Human Rights

6 Trends Track Rise in Deadly Police Encounters Across America—Including Using Police Cars to Kill, Report Finds

Young men, communities of color, mentally ill are most likely victims.

Photo Credit: www.federalcharges.com/deadly-police-shootings/

Police killings are on the increase across America, including the first months of 2017, according to a new study of thousands of police reports in recent years.

“From the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man having car trouble to the death of a convicted felon who injured three Chicago officers, the data show that fatal law enforcement encounters are rising year-over-year – despite the fact that crime has been on the general decline since 1996,” concluded FederalCharges.com, a legal news service, in its report, Deadly Law Enforcement Encounters.

“The truth is that these data raise some big questions,” the report continues. “How do we define or justify the need for deadly police force? What preventative measures can be taken when handling situations involving a person with a suspected mental health or substance abuse issue?”

The analysis contains striking details, from which states have police agencies most likely and least likely to use deadly force, to the finding that in most killings where the victim was mentally ill the police officers had little or no training to deal with those afflicted. The report also offers a very strong rebuttal to law enforcement’s defenders who say police violence has been overly dramatized and sensationalized by the liberal media.

“Experts may believe that shootings aren’t on the rise and that media coverage is, but the data tell a different story,” the report said. “Map nearly four years of fatal law enforcement encounters, and you’ll find sharp spikes in fatalities. According to FBI records, violent crime in the U.S. has been on an overall decline since 1996. Violence toward police is also down. And gun homicides have stabilized since the ’90s.”

The FederalCharges.com report is based on analyzing a database of nearly 20,000 deadly altercations with local, state and federal police between 2000 and 2017, with a heightened focus on data between 2013 to 2017. The database was compiled by FatalEncounters.org, a website whose founder is D. Brian Burghart, a former publisher of Reno News and Review, northern Nevada’s alternative weekly newspaper. 

What follows are a half-dozen findings from the report, which notes that the database of police killings is often incomplete because law enforcement does not always record or release data points involving the victims’ “race, disposition and mental state.”

1. States With the Most and Least Deadly Cops. As a general observation, red states, which have fewer gun control laws, have a higher rate of police killings than blue states, which generally have more gun controls. The report’s findings track this discrepancy.

“The states and territory that had the greatest number of fatal law enforcement encounters per the 2013-2017 data were New Mexico (5.08 deaths per 100,000 residents), Oklahoma (4.09 deaths), the District of Columbia (4.02 deaths),and Arizona (3.51 deaths),” it said. Those were followed by: Alabama (3.44 deaths), Alaska (3.39 deaths), Mississippi (3.24 deaths), Louisiana (3.21 deaths), West Virginia (3.04 deaths) and Missouri (3.01 deaths).

“While every state in the U.S. had deadly encounters with law enforcement during this time, Rhode Island (0.47 deaths), New York (0.76 deaths), Massachusetts (0.93 deaths), and New Jersey (0.97 deaths) had the fewest deaths per 100,000 residents,” it said. Next came New Hampshire (1.05 deaths), Connecticut (1.09 deaths), Pennsylvania (1.19 deaths), Vermont (1.28 deaths), Minnesota (1.35 deaths) and Wisconsin (1.39 deaths).

2. Whites and Non-Whites Equally Victims. Numerically speaking, between 2013 and the first two months of 2017, there were about the same number of white and non-white victims, the report found. These raw numbers do not account for the fact that blacks, Hispanics and other minorities are a smaller percentage of the overall population than whites, meaning that the percentage of victims in those communities is higher.

“From 2013 to 2017, almost 48 percent of people killed by law enforcement were white, while over 30 percent were black, and 18 percent were Hispanic,” the report said. “These percentages account for all armed and unarmed persons killed in law enforcement interactions. However, these numbers only account for the cases in which race or ethnicity of the victim was reported.”

The report also confirmed that police were more likely to use deadly force on younger people and men than women. “Most people killed in law enforcement altercations were aged 20 to 29 years old (over 30 percent), while 27 percent of people in fatal police encounters were aged 30 to 39 years old,” it said. “Over 91 percent were men, and nearly 9 percent were women.”

3. Guns Aren’t the Only Ways Cops Kill. This was one of the report’s more eyebrow-raising findings: While gun deaths are the primary way fatalities occur, they are not the only way. Police also use their cars as weapons and they also use tasers, which were touted as a less-deadly police tool when sold to taxpayers and police agencies.

“The U.S. is a world leader in gun deaths, and its police forces are heavily armed, so it may come as no surprise that 72 percent of deaths related to altercations with law enforcement were caused by gunshots,” the report said. “Additionally, just over 20 percent of deaths in fatal law enforcement encounters were vehicle-related, while nearly 3 percent of deaths were caused via Taser – a weapon that isn’t supposed to be fatal.”

The other factors causing fatalities, in descending order according to the report, are: medical emergencies, drug overdoses, asphyxiation while restrained, beating, drowning, unknown causes, falls from height, chemical agent/pepper spray, burning and stabbings.

4. The Blue Wall Still Surrounds Fatalities. Most police-caused deaths not openly investigated, if they are investigated at all, the report found. “Many cases (36 percent) are still pending,” it said. “Three percent of cases found the death to be criminal, nearly 39 percent remain unknown or unreported, and nearly 11 percent of fatal law enforcement encounters were deemed to be justified.”

5. Mentally Ill People Are More Victims Than Provocateurs. The report’s finding on the link between victims with mental illness and law enforcement's lack of preparedness to deal with the mentally ill is disturbing.

“Mental illness is often to blame for mass shootings in the U.S., as many believe mental illness – when left untreated – can cause breakdowns and fits of anger strong enough to cause irrevocable harm,” the report said. In fact, “fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness.”

If anything, mentally ill people were more likely to be victimized by the public and killed by police than they were to harm others, the report said. “Our research finds that across the board, the mentally ill are 60 to 120 percent more likely than the average person to be the victims of violent crime rather than the perpetrators.”

“What happens, then, when people with mental health issues come in contact with law enforcement?” the report continues. “According to data from January 2013 to February 2017, law enforcement was aware of an altered state of mental health (the person was suicidal, for instance) in 15 percent of fatal law enforcement encounters involving a person deemed mentally ill by an officer, family member, or another involved person. Of the deaths involving a person believed to have a mental health or substance abuse issue, over 89 percent were killed by gunfire. While some encounters involved additional weapons, many victims with reported mental health issues were unarmed at the time of their death.”

6. Police Use of Deadly Force Isn’t Going Away. That may be the most discouraging finding of the report. Even though crime rates continue to fall nationwide, police use of deadly force is continuing. “If January and February of 2017 is any indication of the year ahead, fatal law enforcement encounters may continue to be prevalent in the U.S. – and are on track to outpace those of previous years,” the report said.

“According to the data, there were 168 reported deaths from Jan. 1-31, 2017 (six of which were on New Year’s Day), and 132 reported deaths from Feb. 1-28, 2017,” it elaborated. “Nearly 82 percent of these deaths involved a gunshot wound, while nearly 15 percent involved a vehicle. Another 4 percent of deaths involved a Taser, asphyxiation, or restraint.”

The trends and the findings in the report by FederalCharges.com do not bode well, especially when considering that the Trump administration is planning to vastly expand immigration enforcement, including hiring 15,000 more federal police officers, at the same time that scores of communities nationwide are vowing to resist these roundups and arrests.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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