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Protesters in Madison, Wisconsin want to know "how many more?" after the shooting death of local teenager Tony Robinson. (Photo: Light Brigading/cc/flickr)

Highlighting Government Failure, News Agencies Tally Killings by Police

Columnist Gary Younge notes that 'the question of who counts and whom is counted is not simply a matter of numbers. It’s also about power.'

Lauren McCauley

Highlighting the failure of the U.S. government to keep adequate records on the number of civilians killed by police, news outlets are now undertaking the task of tallying the lives lost to police violence.

According to a new database launched by the Guardian on Monday, local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies are killing people at twice the rate calculated by the U.S. government.

The newspaper's analysis of public records, local news reports, and its own reporting found that of the 464 people killed so far this year, 102 of those victims were unarmed. Further, of the 135 total black victims, a full 32 percent were found to be unarmed, compared with 25 percent Hispanic, and 15 percent white people killed.

In addition to death by shooting, the paper's tally includes deaths related to law enforcement vehicles, the use of tasers, and physical altercations while in police custody.

In total, 135 of this year's victims were black, 67 were Hispanic/Latino, and 234 were white. The numbers, the Guardian notes, "illustrate how disproportionately black Americans, who make up just 13% of the country’s total population according to census data, are killed by police."

Another analysis, released on Saturday by the Washington Post, found that at least 385 people were shot and killed by police in 2015. According to the Post tally, two-thirds of the unarmed victims of police shootings were black or Hispanic and "overall, blacks were killed at three times the rate of whites or other minorities when adjusting by the population of the census tracts where the shootings occurred."

With incidents of police violence, particularly against people of color, thrust into the national spotlight following the high-profile deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in Staten Island, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the dearth of information kept by local and federal law enforcement on such deaths has also come under scrutiny.

"The U.S. government does not keep a comprehensive record of people killed by law enforcement, often leaving families, politicians and advocates powerless to quantify and analyse the size of the issue at hand," the Guardian staff wrote in an op-ed on Monday.

As Jim Bueermann, a former police chief and president of the nonprofit Police Foundation, told the Post, "These shootings are grossly under­reported ...We are never going to reduce the number of police shootings if we don’t begin to accurately track this information."

The statistics underscore an observation that protesters have been making for months: there is a clear racial bias in U.S. policing.

Andrea Irwin, whose son Tony Robinson was fatally shot in March by a police officer in Madison, Wisconsin, said that she believed the lack of government data on police killings comes from an unwillingness to address the systematic issues of police violence and discrimination.

"I think the reason the federal government is not looking at statistics is because they’re trying to turn their head, trying to pretend that’s not what’s going on," Irwin said. "If they started collecting the data, they would have to acknowledge that that is something that’s taking place."

Columnist Gary Younge wrote Monday that on the issue of record keeping, "the question of who counts and whom is counted is not simply a matter of numbers. It’s also about power; the less of it you have the less say you have in what makes it to the ledger and what form it takes when it gets there."

Younge explained: "Collecting information, particularly about people, demands both the authority to gather data and the capacity to keep and transmit it. Those who have both the authority and the capacity need to feel that the people on whom they are keeping tabs on matter."

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