America Is #1 in Police Killings Among Western Democracies, Yet We're Only Just Discovering How Bad the Situation Is

Even before the Washington Post published its startling report this weekend on the astronomically high number of Americans shot and killed by police in the first five months of 2015, the U.S. was already easily number one.

Number one among highly advanced western democracies with fully developed economies for police killings of citizens: at least 400 people a year, according to a write up by the Los Angeles Daily News. That figure was based on FBI data collected from police agencies that reported fatal shootings between 2009 to 2013, which everyone knew to be low. 

Now, even that large number may turn out to be low. After conducting its own analysis, The Washington Post reported this weekend that police shot and killed nearly 400 people in just the first five months of 2015. That is more than two a day. Some of those shootings make news—like Walter Scott’s death at the hands of South Carolina police officer Michael Slager, as Scott tried to run away. Others made some news, even without a shocking video of the tragic event. There was 17-year-old Jessie Hernandez, shot and killed while she joy-riding in a stolen car in Denver. There was 77-year-old Douglas Harris, whose son had asked police to check on him.

Although half of those killed by police are white and half minority, according to the Post, those numbers do not take into account the racial breakdown of the communities in which they occur. There is an undeniable racial component to the use of deadly force. A ProPublica report found that officers are 21 times more likely to kill black men than white men. And a Florida State University study found that white cops are more likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than armed white suspects. The mentally ill don’t fair very well, either. Based on federal data, the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram’s investigation found that at least half of the citizens cops kill in America are mentally ill.

Shocking Numbers

No matter which numbers you look at—even in the unlikely case that not one more case of deadly force occurs this year—U.S. cops are far more deadly than cops in Britain, Iceland, Denmark, Iceland and other European nations.

The Danish police published a study on police shootings between 1996 and 2006. It also accounted for population (based on 2000 census data) by giving the number of people cops kill per one million residents. In Denmark, the cops only killed 11 people during that ten-year span. The number of people killed, per one million residents, is .187 people

Here is the data pere millions for the rest of the countries:

  • Sweden: 13 people — .133 people
  • Norway: 3 people — .060 people
  • Finland: 2 people — .034 people
  • Germany: 81 people — .089 people
  • The Netherlands: 24 people — .137 people
  • England/Wales: 25 people — .042 people

Iceland, however, takes the cake. The republic was founded in 1944 and the first time the cops shot someone was in 2013. And we can’t use the “Iceland is anti-gun” excuse, either. According to PRI, Iceland ranks 15 in the world when it comes to per capita gun ownership.  

Cops in England and Wales went two years without killing a single resident.

Here is where the U.S. falls, according to the Los Angeles Daily News:

If we take Five Thirty Eight’s estimate that 1,000 people are killed by police in the United States every year and multiply it by ten for the 10 years between 1996-2006, then divide it by the 2000 population of 282 million, the American situation for the same 10-year span looks like this:

  • US: 10,000 people killed — 35.0 killed for every one million residents

It's pretty grim, and of course, there are a wide range of problems with these numbers: it’s not clear that non-shooting deaths that take place in police custody, like those of Freddie Gray or Eric Garner, are recorded in FBI figures. Most of the fatalities are classified as “justifiable shootings,” which given the widely publicized and viewed  murder of Walter Scott, seems a dubious description. The DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has data on “arrest-related” deaths, but that’s not reliable because this data set is no longer being collected.

“[Police] shootings are grossly under­reported,” Jim Bueermann, a former police chief and president of the Washington-based Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving law enforcement told the Washington Post. “We are never going to reduce the number of police shootings if we don’t begin to accurately track this information.”

There are other data-collecting issues that make the numbers we have on cops who kill people unreliable. But let’s talk about why the U.S. kills so many people to begin with. For starters, only five percent of 6,091 English and Welsh officers were authorized to carry handguns in 2013.

Sophie Khan, legal director of the Police Action Centre, a nonprofit group in Leicester, England, that challenges law enforcement policies it considers harmful to communities, told Five Thirty Eight that the shooting that killed Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., simply would not have happened in her country. “[I]t would have been impossible for a routine police officer to be in that situation. He wouldn’t have had a firearm,” she said.

We know that American law enforcement agencies won’t stop carrying weapons, but we should focus on why an officer would unholster his or her gun to begin with.

Justifiable Deadly Force?

The Supreme Court ruled this month that San Francisco cops who shot a mentally ill woman in 2008 after she refused to allow them into her home and pulled a knife on them can’t be sued because there is no law barring their conduct. Fortunately, the woman lived but did cops really have to use a gun to subdue the woman if she was a serious threat their safety? Surely, a mental health professional could have been called in to take control of the situation.

Of the 385 cop shooting victims analyzed by the Washington Post — 92 of them, or nearly a quarter of those killed — were identified by police or family members as mentally ill. The Post reports this case:

“In Miami Gardens, Fla., Catherine Daniels called 911 when she couldn’t persuade her son, Lavall Hall, a 25-year-old black man, to come in out of the cold early one morning in February. A diagnosed schizophrenic who stood 5-foot-4 and weighed barely 120 pounds, Hall was wearing boxer shorts and an undershirt and waving a broomstick when police arrived. They tried to stun him with a Taser gun and then shot him.”

As AlterNet previously reported, some of America’s largest cities shoot and kill the mentally ill at alarming rates. These tragedies devastate families, who have other few options or access to mental health care. With little training in how to deal with the mentally ill, police are all too ready to unholster a gun.

A 2014 New York Times column also points out ways in which the Supreme Court protects cops who kill civilians. In May of last year, The Court ruled that cops who fired 15 rounds into the car of a West Memphis man who sped away after being pulled over for a broken taillight weren’t responsible for his death because he posed a public safety risk.

The Court added that it “stands to reason that, if police officers are justified in firing at a suspect in order to end a severe threat to public safety, the officers need not stop shooting until the threat has ended.”

That gives a lot of latitude for cops to shoot fleeing suspects. According to the Post, “dozens of other people also died while fleeing from police, The Post analysis shows, including a significant proportion — 20 percent — of those who were unarmed.”

In fact, running is seen as such a provocation that some police experts chillingly say there is a name for the injury officers inflict on suspects afterward: a “foot tax,” the Post reports.

AlterNet delved into the psychology of why police feel entitled to inflict such harm on someone who runs from theme here

Freddie Gray and Walter Scott are two men who were killed by cops after fleeing. Daniel Elrod, a 39-year-old white man, with a history of run-ins with Omaha police also died while fleeing, the Post reports.: "On the day he died in February, Elrod robbed a Family Dollar store. Police said he ran when officers arrived, jumping on top of a BMW in the parking lot and yelling, 'Shoot me, shoot me.' Elrod, who was unarmed, was shot three times as he made a “mid-air leap” to clear a barbed-wire fence, according to police records.

Bad Company

Of course, America is not the only country that shoots its citizens at high rates. In Brazil, police officers have killed 11,000 of its own people over a five-year span. A 2009 study reports that 8.7 percent of Argentina’s population were abused by police that year. Indeed, the issue with police abuse is not a purely North American one.

But what makes America stand out is because we are supposed to be the moral force of the world. U.S. government officials have long criticized Russia and China, for example, for its human rights abuses.

In 2010, the Chinese called the U.S. out for its hypocrisy.

"The United States not only has a terrible domestic human rights record, it is also the main source of many human rights disasters worldwide," the Chinese said in its own human rights report of the U.S., according to Reuters. "Especially a time when the world is suffering serious human rights disasters caused by the global financial crisis sparked by the U.S. sub-prime crisis, the U.S. government has ignored its own grave human rights problems and reveled in accusing other countries."

Recently, the United Nations grilled the U.S. on its police brutality problem, and concluded that it is a full-blown human rights problem.


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