How Often Are Unarmed Black Men Shot Down By Police?

We stand today, two weeks after the shooting death of unarmed John Crawford, a week and a half after the police shooting death of unarmed Michael Brown, about a week after the shooting death of Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, in the wake of the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York, years after the shooting death of unarmed Sean Bell and Amadour Diallo in New York, years now after the shooting death of unarmed and handcuffed Oscar Grant in Oakland, years after the shooting death of unarmed Kendrec McDade in Pasadena, a decade after the asphyxiation of unarmed Johnny Gammage in Pittsburgh, more decades after the chokehold police murder of Ron Settles in Signal Hill, the police shooting of Eula Love over a $22 water bill payment in 1979, and so many others.


We are told these are isolated incidents. We are told the officers are simply assuring their own safety and if only the "suspects" had "surrendered or obeyed" they would still be alive today.

Police never get it wrong. They never make a mistake, are never in a bad mood, have a short temper, are overly fearful or overreact.  Because in nearly all these cases that's what we're initially told by police sources and their supporters, that "It was a good shoot."

It's a familar broken record.

How often do police shoot and kill unarmed suspects who pose no real threat to them? How often does this happen to black people?  How often does it happen to white people? Or anyone?

The truly frightening thing is that we apparently don't know. We have no idea. Not even a clue. We've been tracking the statistics about crime for decades at individual police agencies and in the FBI Uniform Crime Report. But those reports don't document exactly when cops become murdering criminals. 

According to Fivethirtyeight.com, no one tracks this.

Efforts to keep track of “justifiable police homicides” are beset by systemic problems. “Nobody that knows anything about the SHR puts credence in the numbers that they call ‘justifiable homicides,’” when used as a proxy for police killings, said David Klinger, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri who specializes in policing and the use of deadly force. And there’s no governmental effort at all to record the number of unjustifiable homicides by police. If Brown’s homicide is found to be unjustifiable, it won’t show up in these statistics.
Why don't we have this information? Could it be intentional?

***

If we want to know how many justifiable homicides occur by police or private citizens we can get those numbers easily:

Year     Police      Citizen
2007   398       252   
2008   378       265
2009   414       266
2010   397       285
2011   393       260
2012   409       330

But if we want to know how many law enforcement shootings are "unjustified," we get no answer from the FBI. 

One source, in a report called "Operation Ghetto Storm" says that of the 739 "Justified" shootings shown above from 2012, 313 of them were black people.  44% of them or 136, were unarmed. 27% (83) were claimed by law enforcement to have a weapon at the time of the shooting, but that could not be later confirmed or the "gun" was a toy or other non-lethal object. 20% of them (62) were confirmed to have been armed with a gun, knife or cutting tool.

This report, which was gathered by searching media reports, obituaries and even Facebook pages includes the following table as an example.

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91% of the people killed by police in Chicago in 2012 were black. 87% in New York. 100% in Saginaw and Rockford. 

The report goes on to say that 47% of these killings (146 cases) occurred not because the person brandished a weapon (as noted above less then 30% of them had a weapon, or were thought to have a weapon). It wass because the officer or citizen "felt threatened." In only 8% (25 cases) did the suspect fire or discharge a weapon that wounded or killed police or others while officers were on the scene.

Only eight officers were charged with murder, manslaughter or use of excessive force in these cases.

Is this report comprehensive? Is it fully accurate? It's gone through several revisions and updates as none of the data is being officially compiled anywhere and some things can be missed that way.

Some in the media have attempted to divine the answer on their own. 

This summer ColorLines and the Chicago Reporter conducted a joint national investigation of fatal police shootings in America’s 10 largest cities, each of which had more than 1 million people in 2000. Several striking findings emerged.

To begin, African Americans were overrepresented among police shooting victims in every city the publications investigated.

The contrast was particularly noticeable in New York, San Diego and Las Vegas. In each of these cities, the percentage of black people killed by police was at least double that of their share of the city’s total population.

This report analyzed the data from the 10 largest cities and every city had double the number of black shooting victims than their proportion in the population. And it's not just happening to black people.
Starting in 2001, the number of incidents in which Latinos were killed by police in cities with more than 250,000 people rose four consecutive years, from 19 in 2001 to 26 in 2005. The problem was exceptionally acute in Phoenix, which had the highest number of Latinos killed in the country.

Despite these persistent problems of disproportionate police force in communities of color, a disturbing lack of accountability plagues several of the cities examined.

In Chicago, for example, an examination of media accounts shows that only one shooting out of the 84 fatal police shootings occurred since 2000 has been found unjustified. Monique Bond, spokeswoman at the Chicago Police Department, said that more than one shooting had been determined to have been outside department guidelines, but could not provide specific numbers.

But it's not all bad news.
After five consecutive years of more than 200 reported incidents of fatal police shootings in cities with more than 250,000 people during the early 1990s, the numbers for these cities fell during most of the decade, dropping as low as 138 in 1999 before resuming a general upward climb to 170 in 2003. These figures may be low due to underreporting by some departments to the federal government.

Washington, D.C., which had the nation’s highest rate of police shootings during the 1990s, has cut the rate of shootings dramatically through a combination of training and accountability. Others point to a small but growing number of police departments like Los Angeles and Portland, Ore. that are looking not so much at whether the shootings are justified or not, but about the decisions police and supervisors took that led up to the shootings.

There is also some information available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (pdf).
The most common reason for contact with police in 2008 was being a driver in a traffic stop (44.1%)

Black drivers were about three times as likely as white drivers and about two times as likely as Hispanic drivers to be searched during a traffic stop.

White New Yorkers make up a small minority of stop-and-frisks, which were 84 percent black and Latino residents. Despite this much higher number of minorities deemed suspicious by police, the likelihood that stopping an African American would find a weapon was half the likelihood of finding one on a white person.

So why then, are they doing it? If stopping twice the number of blacks only generates half the guns or drugs, why does it happen?

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The table shows that the percentage of blacks who are arrested during traffic stops is twice (4.7% to 2.4%) as high as white drivers. And similarly their likelihood of being ticketed is greater (58% to 53%)—although Latinos top them both at 62%—and their likelihood of receiving a written warning (14.8% to 17.7%) or a verbal warning (6.0% to 11.2%) is consistently lower.

A similar differential can be seen when it comes to officer uses of force against persons of different races and ages.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"585370","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"242","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]]

From 2002 through 2008, black citizens encountering police received threats of force, or use of force at least three times more often than white citizens. Latinos were threatened with force, or had force used on them about twice as often.

If we are to use the example provided by Chicago as a rough guide, about 95% of these instances are deemed "Justified" by the police but that's not how the citizens feel about it.

Among persons who had contact with police in 2008, an estimated 1.4% had force used or threatened against them during their most recent contact, which was not statistically different from the percentages in 2002 (1.5%) and 2005 (1.6%).

A majority of the people who had force used or threatened against them said they felt it was excessive

When it comes to that majority who felt that force used against them was "excessive," would it be accurate to say that black people— who as shown above received about three times the threats and uses of force against them—don't complain too much about it?

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"585371","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"379","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"422"}}]]

Nope, not so much.

The highest complaint level is Latinos at 78%, then whites at 72% and blacks are dead last, only complaining about use of excessive force 70% of the time. This may be because they feel their complaints fall on deaf ears. I also find it interesting, as noted by fivethirtyeight.com, that the issue that has brought the subject up—excessive use of deadly force— isn't even included in the BJS report.

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If the use of kicking, punching, tasering and pointing guns at citizens is felt to be excessive an average of 74% of the time—and is three times higher for black people—just what would the percentages of unjustified, excessive uses of deadly force really be like if we had those numbers?

Could it be as high as 80%? 90%?

Just how bad it it? With all this number-crunching provided by the BJS and police departments and the FBI, we still don't have that one strategic figure.

I don't think that's a coincidence.

That's why we have people marching in the streets in Ferguson and Los Angeles and New York this week. People are marching for the truth, for justice.

Maybe we should start to solve the problem by defining and quantifying the problem. Then we can measure if things are getting better, or if they're getting worse, if we're going the right direction or the wrong way. Body cams or not, if we don't have raw data, we don't really know what's going on, do we? 

But I think we now have a clue, and it doesn't look good.

Originally posted to Truth2Power on Sun Aug 24, 2014 at 09:26 AM PDT.

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