When reporters for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) began looking into the number of the police officer-involved homicides that occur around the country each year, they discovered that hundreds of police killings have not been included in national statistics. In fact, police killings are reported on a voluntary basis, so most police departments don’t report them at all.
According to the WSJ, between 2007 and 2012, at least 550 police killings occurred and were not reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for inclusion in the national tally. In fact, the 2,400 killings that were reported during the analyzed time period, were reported by only 753 of nearly 18,000 police agencies across the country.1 So how many police killings occur across the country every year? It is impossible to know.
Why Do Officer-Involved Killings Go Unreported?
Police homicides occur when officers kill civilians while on duty, like when officers in Cleveland mistook a 12-year-old boy’s air gun for a real weapon and shot him to death within two seconds of exiting their vehicles. The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide, and the case is still under investigation.2
That police homicide followed a police homicide in Ferguson, Missouri in which an officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, launching protests across the country. The police officer who killed Brown was not indicted for the homicide. Recently, another high profile police homicide occurred in New York when an officer put Eric Garner in a chokehold for selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner, on the ground, repeatedly said that he was unable to breathe and then became motionless and died. The chokehold move is banned by the NYPD.
When the Journal requested internal records from 110 police departments in the country, 105 provided them. Those records showed that between 2007 and 2012, at least 1,800 police homicides had occurred, while the FBI had reports for only 1,242 of them. Not surprisingly, the Journal reports that nearly all reported and unreported police homicides are deemed justified.
Are Police Homicides Justified?
When police killings are deemed justified homicides, families of the victims killed by police often feel as though they have little recourse. To make matters worse, many departments believe that justified police killings do not need to be reported for inclusion in federal databases, making it very difficult to analyze the effectiveness of policies regarding proper procedure. Police departments could also use the data to improve tactics and policies, yet the vast majority does not report these types of incidents.
Some police departments, like those in Washington, D.C. did not report police involved killings for more than a decade, starting in 1998, after it was reported that the city’s rate for police killings was one of the highest in the nation. Because it is not mandatory that police officials report these homicides, it is unknown why the city stopped reporting officer involved killings. The Journal reports that the FBI database had no records for police killings from Florida, Illinois, or New York, three highly populated states. Law enforcement officials from each state blamed technology issues as to why they don’t report police homicides.
While the FBI knows it’s not receiving reports from all the agencies in the country, they do not track what agencies do not report, nor do they know why agencies do not report. Some agencies report police homicide numbers, but do not provide detailed information about the killings. What makes this lack of accountability even more disturbing is how much record keeping is required by all state and federal agencies when an officer is killed.
Until the system is improved, and police officers are held to the same laws as civilians who commit homicide, families of loved ones killed by police may find their best recourse for justice is to seek the assistance of an experienced attorney who is willing to fight for their rights under a broken system.
Share Your Feedback with Us
We at Wallin & Klarich would like to hear from you about police homicides and the lack of transparency that keeps most of these killings from the public. Do you believe that police departments should be allowed to not report police homicides, or do you think that California law should require police departments to report any officer-involved killings? How can police departments be held accountable for the actions of their officers without having to report homicides? Please share your comment about this important issue below.
1. [http://www.wsj.com/articles/hundreds-of-police-killings-are-uncounted-in-federal-statistics-1417577504 ]↩
2. [http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2014/11/cleveland_police_officer_shoot_6.html ]↩