#8 Who Dies at the Hands of US Police—and How Often

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Compared with other capitalist countries, the US is unquestionably different when it comes to the level of state violence directed against minorities, Richard Becker reported in January 2015 for Liberation. Using 2011 figures, Becker wrote that, on a per capita basis, “the rate of killing by U.S. police was about 100 times that of English cops in 2011.” Similarly, US police were forty times as likely to kill as German police officers, and twenty times as likely to kill as their Canadian counterparts. This, Becker noted, is probably not the kind of “American exceptionalism” that President Obama had in mind when he addressed graduating West Point cadets in May 2014.

It is not clear how many people police in the US kill each year, since there is no federal agency that accurately keeps track of such information. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) compiles annual statistics for “justified homicides” by police, and all reported police killings are registered as “justified” killings by the FBI. Since participation in reporting homicides to the FBI by police and sheriff’s departments is voluntary, only about 800 police agencies—out of 18,000—provide statistics.

According to FBI statistics, there were 461 “justified homicides” by police in 2013, but the website KilledByPolice.net, reported that US police killed around 748 people in just the last eight months of 2013, and 1,100 in 2014. The Killed By Police figures were compiled using establishment media sources; because not every police killing is reported, and checking all news sources across the country is virtually impossible, these figures likely underestimate the number of police killings of civilians.

In England, which Becker characterized as “a capitalist country with a long history of racism,” police do not carry guns on patrol. Official records indicate that British police only used guns three times while on duty in all of 2013, with zero reported fatalities.

In recent months, there has been an outpouring of opposition to police murder in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in hundreds of cities, towns, and campuses. “As in all other progressive struggles throughout history,” Becker wrote, “it is the movement of the people in the streets, schools and workplaces that is the key to real change.”

In June 2015, a team of reporters at the Guardian filed a major new report on police killings in the US.52 Summarizing findings from the Guardian study, Jon Swaine, Oliver Laughland, and Jamiles Lartey reported that 102 unarmed people were killed by US police through the first five months of 2015, and that agencies are killing people at twice the rate calculated by the US government. (On problems with the official US figures, see Peter Phillips, Diana Grant, and Greg Sewell, “Law Enforcement-Related Deaths in the US: ‘Justified Homicides’ and Their Impacts on Victims’ Families,” Censored 2015: Inspiring We the People, eds. Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff [New York: Seven Stories Press, 2014], 243–68, and at https://www.projectcensored.org/law-enforcement-related-deaths-us.) Furthermore, they wrote, “black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people.” Based on analysis of public records and local news reports, and the Guardian’s own reporting, they reported that “32% of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, as were 25% of Hispanic and Latino people, compared with 15% of white people killed.”

Over the five-month period covered in the study, Guardian researchers identified twenty-seven people killed by police use of Tasers. All but one of these victims were unarmed. The study also documented fourteen officer-involved deaths following altercations in custody, including that of Freddie Gray, whose death from a broken neck sustained in a Baltimore police van led to public protests and the indictment of six city police officers.

Twenty-six percent of people killed by police exhibited some sort of mental illness, with at least twenty-nine cases involving a victim who was suicidal.

To its credit, the Washington Post also published a significant investigation of US police killings, around the same time as the Guardian study. The Post analysis corroborated many of the findings from the Guardian investigation. Both studies found that police fatally shot approximately 2.5 people per day across the first five months of 2015. Both studies found significant racial disparities among the dead, especially in cases of unarmed suspects. (For a concise summary of the Guardian and Poststudies, see Jaeah Lee, “What 2 Big New Reports on Police Killings Tell Us,” Mother Jones, June 2, 2015, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/06/data-police-shootings-washington-post-guardian.)            In the 385 cases that the Post identified, only three officers have faced charges. The Post study found that, “for the vast majority of departments, a fatal shooting is a rare event.” Of some 18,000 law enforcement agencies, only 306 have recorded a fatal shooting in the first five months of 2015. ThePost found that nineteen state and local agencies were involved in three or more fatal shootings each, including departments in Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, and Bakersfield, California.

Among many sources quoted in the Post’s significant report was Jim Bueermann, a former police chief and president of the Police Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving law enforcement. Bueermann spoke for many when he said, “These shootings are grossly underreported. . . . We have to understand the phenomena behind these fatal encounters. . . . There is a compelling social need for this, but a lack of political will to make it happen.”

Richard Becker, “U.S. Cops Kill at 100 Times Rate of Other Capitalist Countries,” Liberation, January 4, 2015, http://www.liberationnews.org/u-s-cops-kill-100-times-rate-capitalist-countries/.

Jon Swaine, Oliver Laughland, and Jamiles Lartey, “Black Americans Killed by Police Twice as Likely to be Unarmed as White People,” Guardian, June 1, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/01/black-americans-killed-by-police-analysis.

Student Researcher: Brooks Brorsen (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University)