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The killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, was no anomaly: As we reported yesterday, Brown is one of at least four unarmed black men who died at the hands of police in the last month alone. There are many more cases from years past. As Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Missouri chapter put it in a statement of condolence to Brown's family, "Unarmed African-American men are shot and killed by police at an alarming rate. This pattern must stop."
But quantifying that pattern is difficult. Federal databases that track police use of force or arrest-related deaths paint only a partial picture. Police department data is scattered and fragmented. No agency appears to track the number of police shootings or killings of unarmed victims in a systematic, comprehensive way.
Here's some of what we do know:
Previous attempts to analyze racial bias in police shootings have arrived at similar conclusions. In 2007, ColorLines and the Chicago Reporter investigated fatal police shootings in 10 major cities, and found that there were a disproportionately high number of African Americans among police shooting victims in every one, particularly in New York, San Diego, and Las Vegas.
"We need not look for individual racists to say that we have a culture of policing that is really rubbing salt into longstanding racial wounds," NAACP president Cornell Williams Brooks told Mother Jones. It's a culture in which people suspected of minor crimes are met with "overwhelmingly major, often lethal, use of force," he says.
In Oakland, California, the NAACP reported that out of 45 officer-involved shootings in the city between 2004 and 2008, 37 of those shot were black. None were white. One-third of the shootings resulted in fatalities. Although weapons were not found in 40 percent of cases, the NAACP found, no officers were charged. (These numbers don't include 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was shot and killed by a transit authority officer at the Fruitvale BART station on New Year's Day of 2009.)
The New York City Police Department has reported similar trends in its firearms discharge report, which shows that more black people have been shot by NYPD officers between 2000 and 2011 than have Hispanics or whites.
When you look at the racial breakdown of New Yorkers, black people are disproportionately represented among those targeted as criminal shooting suspects, firearms arrestees, and those fired upon or struck by police gunfire.
NYPD Firearms Discharge Report, 2011
Often, the police officers do not get convicted or sentenced. Delores Jones-Brown, a law professor and director of the Center on Race, Crime, and Statistics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, has identified dozens of black men and women who have died at the hands of police going back as far as 1994. She notes that while these incidents happen regularly, it often takes a high-profile case, such as Brown's, to bring other recent incidents to national attention.
"For whatever reason, juries are much less likely to convict" police who kill.
"Unfortunately, the patterns that we've been seeing recently are consistent: The police don't show as much care when they are handling incidents that involve young black men and women, and so they do shoot and kill," says Jones-Brown, a former assistant prosecutor in Monmouth County, New Jersey. "And then for whatever reason, juries and prosecutor's offices are much less likely to indict or convict."
Between 2003 and 2009, the DOJ reported that 4,813 people died while in the process of arrest or in the custody of law enforcement. These include people who died before an officer physically placed him or her under custody or arrest. This data, known as arrest-related deaths, doesn't reveal a significant discrepancy between whites, blacks, or hispanics. It also doesn't specify how many victims were unarmed. According to the FBI, which has tracked justifiable homicides up to 2012, 410 felons died at the hands of a law enforcement officer in the line of duty.*
Bureau of Justice Statistics
But black people are more likely than whites or Hispanics to experience a police officer's threat or use of force, according to the Department of Justice's Police Public Contact Survey in 2008, the latest year for which data is available. Of those who felt that police had used or threatened them with force that year, about 74 percent felt those actions were excessive. In another DOJ survey of police behavior during traffic and street stops in 2011, blacks and Hispanics were less likely than whites to believe that the reason for the stop was legitimate.
The Justice Department has investigated possible systemic abuse of power by police in at least 15 cities.
Police shootings of unarmed black people aren't limited to poor or predominantly black communities. Jones-Brown points to examples where police officers have shot unarmed black men and women in Hollywood, Riverside (California), and Prince Georges County—a Maryland suburb known as the most affluent US county with an African-American majority. "Part of the problem is that black people realize that you don't have to be poor, you don't have to be in your own community...and this can happen to you," she says. These killings occur against black people of varying socioeconomic backgrounds: "Actors, professional football players, college students, high school grads. They happen to black cops, too."
"You don't have to be poor, you don't have to be in your own community...and this can happen to you."
Yet, the lack of comprehensive data means that we can't know if there's been an upsurge in such cases, says Samuel Walker, a criminal justice scholar at the University of Nebraska in Omaha and author of The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity, and Crime in America. "It's impossible to make any definitive statement on whether there were more incidents in the last 5 to 10 years than in the past," he says. "We just don't have that kind of data." But what is certain, Walker says, is that the fatal shooting in Ferguson "was just the tip of the iceberg."
UPDATE (8/15/14): USA Today reported that on average there were 96 cases of a white police officer killing a black person each year between 2006 and 2012, based on justifiable homicides reported to the FBI by local police. As I reported above, the FBI's justifiable homicides database paints only a partial picture—accounting for cases in which an officer killed a felon. It does not necessarily include cases involving victims like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others who were unarmed when confronted by police. The data in this post has been updated with 2012 numbers, and the map has been updated to reflect that certain cases have been closed.
http://www.motherjones.com/politics/201 ... -black-men
Since a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, one month ago, reporters and researchers have scrambled to find detailed data on how often cops wound or kill civilians. What they've uncovered has been frustratingly incomplete: Perhaps not surprisingly, law enforcement agencies don't keep very good stats on incidents that turn deadly. In short, it's a mystery exactly how many Americans are shot by the police every year.
However, as I and others have reported, there is some national data out there. It's not complete, but it provides a general idea of how many people die at the hands of the police—and the significant racial disparity among them:
• The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting program records that 410 people were killed in justifiable homicides by police in 2012. While the FBI collects information on the victims' race, it does not publish the overall racial breakdown.
• The Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that between 2003 and 2009 there were more than 2,900 arrest-related deaths involving law enforcement. Averaged over seven years, that's about 420 deaths a year. While BJS does not provide the annual number of arrest-related deaths by race or ethnicity, a rough calculation based on its data shows that black people were about four times as likely to die in custody or while being arrested than whites.
Note: Most arrest-related deaths by homicide are by law enforcement, not private citizens. Rate calculated by dividing deaths by the average Census population for each race in 2003-09. "Other" includes American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asians, Native Hawaiians, other Pacific Islander, and persons of two or more races.
• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Vital Statistics System offers another view into officers' use of deadly force. In 2011, the CDC counted 460 people who died by "legal intervention" involving a firearm discharge. In theory, this includes any death caused by a law enforcement or state agent (it does not include legal executions).
The CDC's cause-of-death data, based on death certificates collected at the state level, also reveals a profound racial disparity among the victims of police shootings. Between 1968 and 2011, black people were between two to eight times more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than whites. Annually, over those 40 years, a black person was on average 4.2 times as likely to get shot and killed by a cop than a white person. The disparity dropped to 2-to-1 between 2003 and 2009, lower than the 4-to-1 disparity shown in the BJS data over those same years. The CDC's database of emergency room records also shows similar racial disparities among those injured by police.
However, these numbers provide an extremely limited view of the lethal use of force by law enforcement. For reasons that have been outlined by USA Today, Vox, FiveThirtyEight, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and others, the FBI data is pretty unreliable and represents a conservative estimate. Some 18,000 agencies contribute to the FBI's broader crime reporting program, but only about 750 reported their justifiable homicide figures in 2012. New York state, for example, does not report justifiable homicides to the FBI, according to bureau spokesman Stephen G. Fischer Jr.
The FBI's data only counts "felons," but its definition of a felon differs from the common legal understanding of a felon as someone who has been convicted of a felony.
It's also not clear that Brown's death—the circumstances of which remain in dispute—would show up in the FBI's data in the first place. (Ferguson reported two homicides to the 2012 Uniform Crime Report, but neither were justifiable homicides, according to Fischer.) The FBI's justifiable homicide data only counts "felons," but its definition of a felon differs from the common legal understanding of a felon as someone who has been convicted of a felony. "A felon in this case is someone who is committing a felony criminal offense at the time of the justifiable homicide," according to a statement provided by Uniform Crime Reporting staff. The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook describes the following scenario to illustrate what constitutes the justifiable killing of a criminal caught in the act:
A police officer answered a bank alarm and surprised the robber coming out of the bank. The robber saw the responding officer and fired at him. The officer returned fire, killing the robber. The officer was charged in a court of record as a matter of routine in such cases.
And since the classification of felonies—usually serious criminal offenses such as murder and assault—may vary by jurisdiction, UCR staff states, there is no standard definition of the word.
This leaves much room for interpretation. Was Michael Brown committing a felony at the time Officer Darren Wilson shot him? Local authorities in Ferguson have claimed that Brown was a robbery suspect and that he assaulted Wilson prior to the shooting. Whether Brown's case might be classified as a justifiable homicide hinges on the details of what happened in the moments before his death and whether local investigations determine that Wilson was justified to shoot. The FBI's records ultimately rely on police departments' word and the assumption that the victim was a criminal.
BJS, meanwhile, collects its data from state-level coordinators that identify arrest-related deaths in part by surveying law enforcement agencies. But the majority of these coordinators do not contact each law enforcement agency in their states, so BJS has no way of telling how many deaths have gone unidentified, according to spokesperson Kara McCarthy. BJS collects some details about each reported death, such as how the victims died, whether they were armed, whether they were intoxicated or displayed signs of mental illness, and whether charges had been filed against them at the time of death. It does not collect information about whether the victims had any prior convictions.
Some of the gaps in the FBI and BJS data can be filled in by the CDC data, but there are limitations here, too. The CDC data does not evaluate whether these killings were justified or not. The agency categorizes fatalities by International Classification of Diseases codes, which are used by coroners and medical examiners to record the medical cause, not the legal justification, of death. And death certificates aren't immune to reporting problems, explains Robert Anderson, chief of the CDC's Mortality Statistics Branch. This data is still "at the mercy of the medical examiner and coroner," who often write death certificates and may not include details about officer involvement. Anderson says those details are necessary in order for the CDC to categorize a death as a legal intervention.
Better data, and the will to collect it, is necessary to get the full picture of how many criminals and law-abiding citizens are killed by police every year. Until then Michael Brown—and others like him—may never even become a statistic.
http://www.motherjones.com/politics/201 ... -race-data
In the week since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, initial autopsy findings, police reports, and eyewitness accounts have begun to provide some insights into the circumstances of his death. But plenty of questions remain unanswered, not the least of them: Where is Officer Darren Wilson, and what's likely to happen to him?
Wilson, who was put on administrative leave after killing Brown, reportedly left home with his family a few days before his name was made public. A fundraising campaign launched on August 17 has already raised more than $10,000 to cover the financial needs of Wilson's family, "including legal fees." (The campaign has since increased its goal to $100,000.)
It remains to be seen whether Wilson will face criminal charges, but a limited review of similar killings by police suggests that the officers more often than not walk away without an indictment, and are very rarely convicted. Delores Jones-Brown, a law professor and director of the Center on Race, Crime, and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, looked at 21 publicized cases from 1994 through 2009 in which a police officer killed an unarmed black person. Of those, only seven cases resulted in an indictment—for criminally negligent homicide, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, or violation of civil rights—and only three officers were found guilty.
Let's take a closer look at five specific cases in which an unarmed black man was killed by officers while allegedly fleeing or resisting in some fashion.
City: Memphis, Tennessee
Date: October 1974
Officers: Elton Hymon and Leslie Wright
Victim: Edward Garner
What happened: Officers Hymon and Wright were responding to a burglary call when Hymon spotted Garner, an unarmed 15-year-old, by a fence in the backyard of the home in question. After Hymon ordered Garner to halt, the teenager tried to climb the fence. In response, the officer shot him fatally in the head. A federal district court ruled that the shooting was justified under a Tennessee statute—the law said that once a police officer voices intent to arrest a suspect, "the officer may use all the necessary means to effect the arrest." Garner's father appealed, and the case ended up in the Supreme Court, which ruled the Tennessee statute unconstitutional and the killing unjustified. Justice Byron White wrote for the majority: "It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape. Where the suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others, the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not justify the use of deadly force to do so. It is no doubt unfortunate when a suspect who is in sight escapes, but the fact that the police arrive a little late or are a little slower afoot does not always justify killing the suspect. A police officer may not seize an unarmed, non-dangerous suspect by shooting him dead." Despite the reversal, the officer who shot Hymon was never charged.
Iris and Ramon Baez, parents of Anthony Baez, address the media after the sentencing of former police officer Frank Livoti Lynsey Addario/AP
City: Bronx, New York
Date: December 1994
Officer: Francis X. Livoti
Victim: Anthony Baez
What happened: Officer Livoti choked to death 29-year-old Anthony Baez in a case that would later be featured in a PBS documentary titled Every Mother's Son. After their football struck his patrol car, Livoti had ordered Baez and his brother to leave the area. When the brothers refused, Livoti attempted an arrest. After Baez allegedly resisted, the officer administered the choke hold that ended his life. Livoti, who had been accused of brutality 11 times over 11 years, was charged with criminally negligent homicide, but found not guilty during a state trial in October 1996. He was fired the following year, however, after a judge ruled his choke hold illegal. In June 1998, a federal jury sentenced him to 7.5 years in prison for violating Baez's civil rights, and the Baez family received a $3 million settlement from the city later that year. In 2003, two more cops were fired for giving false testimony in Livoti's defense.
Officers Richard Murphy, left, Kenneth Boss, center, and Edward McMellon listen to their attorneys speak to the media, Mar. 31, 1999. David Karp/AP
City: Bronx, New York
Date: February 1999
Officers: Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon, Kenneth Boss, Richard Murphy
Victim: Amadou Diallo
What happened: Amadou Diallo, an unarmed, 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, was killed in the vestibule of his own building when four white police officers fired 41 shots, striking him 19 times. Diallo had just returned home from his job as a street vendor at 12:44 a.m. when he was confronted by the plainclothes officers. The officers later said he matched the description of a rape suspect, and that they mistakenly believed he was reaching for a gun. (He was pulling out his wallet.) Three of the officers had been involved in previous shootings, including one that led to the death of another black civilian in 1997. The four cops were acquitted of all charges, prompting citywide protests. They were not fired, either, but lost permission to carry a weapon—although one of the officers eventually had his carrying privilege restored. In 2004, Diallo's family received a $3 million settlement from the city. His mother said her son had been saving to attend college and become a computer programmer. A foundation in Diallo's name seeks to promote racial healing.
A candlelit vigil for Anthony Dwain Lee in front of the West Los Angeles police station, Oct 30, 2000 Kim D. Johnson/AP
City: Los Angeles, California
Date: October 2000
Officer: Tarriel Hopper
Victim: Anthony Dwain Lee
What happened: Lee, a 39-year-old black actor who had roles in the 1997 movie Liar Liar and the TV series ER, was attending a Halloween party when the LAPD showed up, responding to a noise complaint. According to police accounts, a group of officers were searching for the party's host when they found Lee and two other men in a small room, engaged in what the police claimed looked like a drug deal. Lee, who was dressed as a devil, allegedly held up a toy pistol, whereupon Officer Hopper fired several times, wounding him fatally. The LAPD's internal review board determined that the shooting was justified because Hopper had believed Lee's pistol was real and feared for his life.
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