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Unarmed and Unaware

Sharon Kyle: It's easier to find out the amount of space debris orbiting Earth than it is for me to know how many unarmed black men have died at the hands of the police across the United States so far this year.

Today, the Internet has made it possible for just about anyone to gain access to virtually unlimited amounts of information on almost any topic. Yet even today, in the information age, it's easier for the average person to find out the amount of space debris orbiting the Earth than it is for an investigative journalist to find out how many unarmed people have died at the hands of law enforcement agencies in the United States.

Police Killing Unarmed People

After learning of the shooting of an unarmed young Black man in my community, I did my best to find a national database that contained statistics on law enforcement's use of deadly force for an investigative piece I was writing. After an exhaustive search and after exploring the works of criminologists such as former LAPD officer David Klinger, I learned that I couldn't find the data because the data is not there.

In an article titled, "Is Police Brutality on the Rise", Mary Sanchez of the Chicago Tribune recently reported:

Congress voted to institute this kind of reporting. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act called for compiling data on the use of excessive force by police. Annual reports were envisioned, the very type of information that would provide a useful frame of reference in the current controversy.

Studies have been done of various police departments and assessments culled from media accounts of fatal shooting [sic] have been attempted. But until better data are available, we have no hope of dissuading people from the idea that police are increasingly targeting their sons, nor do we have a good starting point for holding police accountable.

The Uniform Crime Report, compiled by the FBI, has some data, but it relies on voluntary reporting by law enforcement.

In an October 2014 piece entitled "Deadly Force, in Black and White" Propublica cited the deficiencies of the data compiled by the FBI saying that the data is terribly incomplete and that their shortcomings are inarguable. In discussing the limitations of having such an incomplete database, Problica says:

Vast numbers of the country's 17,000 police departments don't file fatal police shooting reports at all, and many have filed reports for some years but not others. Florida departments haven't filed reports since 1997 and New York City last reported in 2007. Information contained in the individual reports can also be flawed.

Clearly, the use of a voluntary reporting system is not enough. What is telling is that across jurisdictions throughout the United States, when law enforcement officers kill someone, the vast majority of those killings go unreported to the DOJ but when a civilian kills someone, the reporting requirements are different. The reporting requirements stem from a program that was established in 1929 by the International Association of Chiefs of Police to meet the need for reliable uniform crime statistics for the nation. In 1930, the FBI was tasked with collecting, publishing, and archiving those statistics through a program that call, the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program.

The UCR program collects monthly counts of the number of crimes known to law enforcement from thousands of agencies throughout the nation. Information on the number of crimes known is recorded for eight offense categories, based on the most serious offense reported for each crime incident:

  • murder and non-negligent manslaughter
  • rape
  • robbery
  • aggravated assault
  • burglary
  • larceny-theft
  • motor vehicle theft
  • arson
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After the crimes are cartegorized by offense, information on the arrestees is broken down by age, sex, and race. So while there is a national repository that contains data on crime which also includes civilian shootings of police, there is no formal national database that contains a complete data set on shootings by police.

Ferguson Police Report

Ferguson Police Report

For this reason, police-involved shootings are hard to quantify. According to criminologist David Klinger, while the FBI's uniform crime reports are the primary data-collection mechanism that tracks police-involved shootings, many police agencies do not report these homicides to the FBI.

In a recent interview on NPR's Fresh Air speaking of the lack of reporting of both justified and non-justified homocides committed by police across the country, Klinger said, “for whatever reason, the FBI numbers are lower than the numbers you gather from local police departments.”

Couple that with the discovery that the police report on the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is missing key information. An ACLU attorney told Yahoo News that the two-page police report, which the Ferguson Police Department released only after pressure from journalists and civil liberties advocates, is largely redacted or left blank.

The report even omitted the victim’s name and a description of the offense – the fatal shooting of Brown. Speaking of the report, ACLU attorney Rothert said, “It doesn’t tell us anything. We have to imagine what is there because it is all redacted.”

If the Ferguson police report is any indication of the level of reporting submitted after a police involved shooting, it's not surprising that the FBI's numbers are low.

The people of this country deserve better. When law enforcement is involved in the taking of a life, arguably one of the single most significant actions they can take, the taxpayers should know about it -- because indirectly, the police are acting on our behalf.

When this story was originally posted it included a link to a White House petition I created to bring this issue to the attention of the Obama administration and to ask that congress mandate the reporting of deadly force to the FBI in all cases as opposed to the voluntary reporting that is now in place. Unfortunately, I did not garner enough signatures for the petition to gain any traction -- the petition was removed after only 800 signatures were captured.

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Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive