Fatal shootings at the hands of police hit a two-decade high in 2013, according to a USA Today analysis of recent Federal Bureau of Investigation data.
A count of “justifiable homicides” in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report found that 461 people were shot and killed by police in 2013. What that figure tells us, more than anything, is that 461 is the bare minimum number of people who were shot by police last year. And it is almost certainly a dramatic under-estimation.
Departments are not required to submit data for this count; it is voluntary. In fact, there are entire states including Florida that didn’t submit their death counts for years. So the increase in 2013 recorded shootings could simply be the result of more jurisdictions reporting. What’s more, the figure is only a count of “justifiable homicides,” which means those that are considered legally defensible. This means jurisdictions are least likely to include those shootings that are subject to criminal scrutiny in their reports.
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch report this week on police shooting data found that out of some 18,000 U.S. police departments, only 1,100 — or six percent of all departments — reported a single fatal police shooting that was considered justifiable between 2005 and 2012. We don’t know whether those who didn’t report simply opted not to report that information, or didn’t have any shootings. University of Nebraska criminologist Samuel Walker lamented that this incomplete and inconsistent data means we don’t even know what to make of the spike in FBI-recorded shootings. “It is irresponsible that we don’t have a complete set of numbers,” he told USA Today. “… This is a scandal.”
We also don’t know much about the circumstances, or even basic profile information of those who died, although some like ProPublica have been working to piece that information together from available data.
ProPublica found last month in an analysis of reported police deaths that black male teens were 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts.
Contrast this with data on the other tragedy of policing: when cops are killed on the job. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “the Justice Department keeps careful track of the officers killed in the line of duty and the demographics of the killers.” In 2012, the FBI found that 95 law enforcement officers were killed while on the job, 47 in accidents, and the other 48 by a “felonious act.”