The Trouble with Official Statistics for ‘Justifiable’ Police Homicides

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Although the corporate media have provided exhaustive coverage of how an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in this article Reuben Fischer-Baum puts Brown’s death in larger, systemic context. Fischer-Baum’s FiveThirtyEight report asks how often people are killed by police and examines flaws in the methods used to determine the most frequently cited figures.

In order to determine the number of documented cases of police homicides, he compared data from the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Report (SHR), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Bureau of Justice Statistics. The SHR report indicates approximately 400 “justifiable police homicides” each year since 2008, a figure that has been widely reported in corporate media, including, for example, the USA Today and the Washington Post.

The FBI figure is for officially defined “justifiable” cases of homicide. Fischer-Baum’s report identifies four problems with the FBI’s SHR figures: 1) not all police agencies report SHR data; 2) “unjustifiable homicide” is not a classification in the SHR figures; 3) cases that go unresolved or are not concluded until the following year are not reopened and entered in the annual data for the correct year in which they occurred; and 4) killings that take place in federal jurisdictions or on military bases are not included in the database. For these reasons, Fischer-Baum writes, the SHR’s “justifiable police homicide” number is “not a useful approximation of how many people are killed by the police.”

According to David Klinger, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri who specializes in policing and the use of deadly force, “Nobody that knows anything about the SHR puts credence in the numbers that they call ‘justifiable homicides.’”

Source: Reuben Fischer-Baum, “Nobody Knows How Many Americans The Police Kill Each Year,” FiveThirtyEight, August 19, 2014,

Student Researcher: Michael Lopez (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Diana Grant (Sonoma State University)

Editor’s Note: For more on this topic, including data analyses indicating that the annual figure of law enforcement-related deaths is in excess of 600 cases per year, see the Project Censored study, “Law Enforcement-Related Deaths in the US: ‘Justifiable Homicides’ and Their Impacts on Victims’ Families,” by Peter Phillips, Diana Grant and Greg Sewell, Chapter 8 in Censored 2015: Inspiring We the People (Seven Stories Press, 2014), and available online here.