Fatal police shootings were higher in 2013 than they've been in two decades, according to new FBI data. But experts say the figures fail to give an accurate picture of police killings.
The FBI's Uniform Crime Report (UCR), which collects data voluntarily submitted by police departments, looked only at killings which police considered "justifiable homicide," defined by the bureau as "the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty."
There were 461 justifiable homicides reported last year, up from 426 in 2012. But the limited figures pose another question: how many people do police really kill?
As Radley Balko writes at Washington Post, "[U]nofficial attempts to compile a more thorough count of killings by police have put the figure much, much higher —as many as 1,700 since May 2013, and more than 900 so far in 2014."
The FBI's numbers "are bullshit," journalist D. Brian Burghart, who operates FatalEncounters.org, told Common Dreams. "They're widely known to be inaccurate." The only approach is for a non-governmental organization to collect the data, as Fatal Encounters, Killed by Police, the Gun Violence Archive, and other dedicated groups are doing, Burghart said.
There is no question that the numbers are wrong, Burghart said. "It's just a question of how wrong they are."
As ThinkProgress notes, some states, such as Florida, chose not to report any death count information for years—so the increase in FBI statistics could simply be the result of more jurisdictions reporting, rather than an increase in killings. Likewise, in many jurisdictions, police departments don't require justifiable homicide reports to include the names of officers or the deceased, Burghart said.
But without accurate information, it is impossible to parse the data. "It is irresponsible that we don't have a complete set of numbers," University of Nebraska criminologist Samuel Walker told USA Today. "Whether the numbers are up, down or stable, this (national database) needs to be done. ... This is a scandal."
"The increase sounds notable, but the underlying data continues to be nearly useless," writes Reuben Fischer-Baum at FiveThirtyEight. "[T]he FBI’s UCR program undercounts what it classifies as justifiable police homicides (while skirting the issue of non-justifiable homicides), and should not be considered a useful estimate."
The data within the reports is also unreliable, Burghart notes. In November, CBS reported that Brazilian police kill an average of six people a day, while U.S. law enforcement "killed 11,090 people over the past 30 years." That amounts to about 369 annually—less than two a day, a lower number than the FBI itself reported since 2008.
The FBI statistics "are so inaccurate," that to compare them to Brazilian police killings on record is "the height of irony," Burghart said. "It's an even greater lie over time."
ProPublica found in October that young black men were 21 times more likely to be killed by police than young white men. And recent protests and organized actions in Ferguson, Missouri have focused international attention to the issue of institutionalized racism, police brutality, and militarization—which in turn highlighted how little information is available on police killings. As Fischer-Baum pointed out in August, the UCR program has severe limitations:
"Felon killed by police" refers narrowly to justifiable police homicides, and "unjustifiable homicide by police" is not a classification. This means it’s difficult to combine unjustifiable police homicides — which could be listed as crimes elsewhere in the database — with "justifiable" police homicides....
If the legality of a police homicide is in question, it may not be reported to the FBI SHR until the investigation is resolved. If the investigation concludes in a new reporting year, the old SHR data may not be updated, regardless of whether the killing was found to be justifiable or not.
"Since we don't have real numbers, we can't look at different jurisdictions to see what's most effective, [like] new policies... that decrease numbers," Burghart told Common Dreams. "We have nothing quantifiable." Burghart also pointed out that within the UCR reports, police who are involved in killings are often listed as the victims.
Measuring against a small parameter of justifiable homicide also skirts reporting "deaths by Taser, beatings, 'medical emergency,' car crashes, misdemeanor suspects, innocent bystanders, domestic violence victims," Burghart said. "If [the FBI] presents this information as though it's real... Americans don't have as much reason to be upset," Burghart said. "Four hundred people a year is more 'reasonable' than 1,400."