The killing of unarmed Missouri teen Michael Brown is reviving conversation about the use of deadly force by police.
The 18-year-old was shot by a police officer during an altercation Aug. 9. His death has been followed by riots and looting, and the FBI is conducting an independent investigation into the shooting.
The latest national figures, from 2012, show more than 400 people across the country were killed by police officers. This statistic is based on voluntarily reported information collected by the FBI.
The number of people killed by law enforcement officers has remained steady, according to FBI data from 2010 to 2012 analyzed by Scripps reporters.
But one national expert says this data is just skimming the surface of the reality of the use of deadly force by law enforcement officers in America.
“Don’t waste your time,” said David Klinger, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri. “The data is no good. It sucks.”
Klinger has been researching and teaching about crime in the St. Louis area for 15 years. He said there is not a way to determine how many people are shot by police each year in the United States.
“It’s ridiculous and we need to change this,” he said. “We have no real clue how often police officers put bullets in people’s bodies.”
Deaths caused by police are not largely tracked on a national scale and law enforcement officers are the only non-military personnel in the country given authority to use deadly force.
In its Uniform Crime Reporting Program, the FBI provides a glimpse through its Justifiable Supplemental Homicide Reports at how many people are killed by law enforcement officers.
At the most basic level of the UCR program, the FBI collects data relating to 10 different crimes, including rape, aggravated assault and arson.
Deaths by law enforcement are included in the data as homicides that are classified as justifiable or excusable. This data is collected from about 33 percent of law enforcement agencies across the country through the National Incident-Based Reporting System within UCR. These reports collect incident-level data on victims, offenders, arrestees, property and more for 50 different offenses, according to the FBI.
The FBI classifies a justifiable homicide as “the killing of a felon by a peace officer in the line of duty,” or “the killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen.”
“Whatever the FBI puts out, is the baseline,” Klinger said. “When I have looked around the country, I can say it’s 25 percent undercount.”
In 2004, Klinger published “Into the Kill Zone,” a book that takes a look at the role deadly force plays in American police work.
In his book, Klinger uses studies from the late 1980s to estimate the number of people shot by law enforcement officers each year in the U.S.
Based on those nearly 30-year-old studies, Klinger estimates police fatally shoot between 600 to 1,000 people a year in the U.S. Another 1,200 to 1,500 people a year are non-fatally shot by police.
In comparison, there are on average, 150 law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty each year, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
In the last 10 years, about 1,500 officers have died in the line of duty, according to the nonprofit police organization’s website. Last year there were 100 officers killed.
Death of Michael Brown
Last week, in the predominantly black St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, one witness said a white officer, who works for the City of Ferguson Police Department, was aggressive with Brown and shot him after he put his hands in the air. Authorities say Brown and the officer were in a physical altercation and Brown tried to grab the officer's weapon.
“What’s getting lost is that we have a young guy who’s dead and an officer whose life is in a lot of turmoil,” Klinger said. “The rush to judgement is really disturbing to me.”
But Klinger said he can understand why it is getting national attention.
“It’s the overkill,” Klinger said. “According to witness, he was shot multiple times. He was shot with his hands up. The narrative fits with the concern about government power at large and in particular power of police in the black community.”
As of the publication of this article, Ferguson PD had not released the name of the officer involved.
Four days after the incident, at least two reporters were arrested by police in a McDonalds restaurant near the site of the shooting. According to Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowry, one of the journalists arrested, about half a dozen police officers came into the restaurant.
Some of the officers were dressed in regular uniforms while others were in riot gear and carrying assault weapons.
St Louis County NAACP President Esther Haywood expressed concern.
“We are hurt to hear that yet another teenaged boy has been slaughtered by law enforcement especially in light of the recent death of Eric Garner in New York who was killed for selling cigarettes,” Haywood said in a statement.
With no complete database tracking law enforcement use of force in the U.S., the FBI’s UCR is the best nationwide crime statistic reporting information that exists for national comparisons. The latest data available is from 2012, with data from 2013 expected to be released this fall.
When UCR began in 1930, 400 cities and 43 states participated. Now, more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide voluntarily contribute.
In the Ferguson Police Department last year, there were no other officer-involved shootings, according to Ferguson Officer Tim Zoll. Brown’s death represents the only one for the department this year, he said.
According to Schron Jackson with the St. Louis Municipal Police Department, there were 12 officer-involved shootings in their department last year and five so far this year. No other information related to the shootings was immediately available.
The E.W. Scripps Company’s national desk asked for the same information related to officer-involved shootings from the St. Louis County Police Department, but did not receive responses. According to an ABC News report, a teen near the site of the Ferguson protests Wednesday morning was shot and critically wounded by a St. Louis County police officer. The incident was not related to the protests.
According to the 2012 UCR data, there were eight people killed by officers working in the St. Louis area. Six of them involved the St. Louis Municipal Police Department, one involved an officer from the St. Louis County Police Department and another involved the Rock Hill Police Department, a suburb of St. Louis.
According to a 2012 St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation, there were a total of 15 fatal shooting cases involving law enforcement agencies in St. Louis from Jan. 2007 to Sept. 30, 2011.
“St. Louis officers fire their guns at a higher rate than those in many other metropolitan forces, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis … An analysis of police data shows that in the five years ending in 2010, St. Louis officers fired up to three times more often, per reported violent crime, than those protecting other, similar-sized populations. The rate was 1.6 times higher than that of St. Louis County officers.”
Police force across the U.S.
St. Louis isn’t the only city in the country to see its law enforcement agents come under scrutiny.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, police shot a homeless man in the back, killing him. The March incident was caught on police video and made national headlines.
According to a CNN investigation, “26 people have been killed by city police in Albuquerque since 2010, a per capita rate of officer-involved deaths higher than New York City and Chicago.”
In a letter from this April, the U.S. Department of Justice said poor training inside the Albuquerque Police Department is to blame.
“We find that the department engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force during the course of arrests and other detentions in violation of the Fourth Amendment,” the Department said in the letter.
Last month, the City of Albuquerque and the DOJ came to an agreement to address issues of excessive force within the city police department. An independent monitor and the courts will oversee reforms at the police department and community input and involvement will also be part of the process.
The interactive map above shows how many people were killed by law enforcement officers in each state from 2010-2012. Note: the numbers come from the FBI UCR Justifiable Supplemental Homicide Reports. Since the data is voluntarily reported by local agencies across the country, some deaths may not have been reported to the FBI or may not have included complete data and therefore may not be included in this map.
In 2011, the DOJ opened a similar investigation of the Seattle Police Department. The DOJ said officers in the Seattle PD lack adequate training on when and how to report force and when and how to use impact weapons like batons and flashlights.
According to the investigation, “SPD has engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law. Our investigation further raised serious concerns that some SPD policies and practices, particularly those related to pedestrian encounters, could result in discriminatory policing.”
In a 2011 analysis, the Las Vegas Review-Journal found “the (Las Vegas) Metropolitan Police Department uses deadly force at a higher rate than many other urban police agencies.”
According to the paper’s investigation, since 1990, police in Clark County, which encompasses the city of Las Vegas, killed more than 140 people in close to 380 officer-involved shootings. Las Vegas officers were involved more than 80 percent of the time, according to the Review-Journal investigation.
In UCR, the local law enforcement agencies report killings of one individual by another, but they do not report the criminal liability of any individual involved, including whether or not a law enforcement officer was justified in a shooting.
National reporting wanted
Klinger and others who study the use of force by police have asked for a national database tracking police shootings across the country.
“A couple of years ago we asked for a database to be created,” Klinger said. “But it has fallen on deaf ears.”
In 2004, Klinger and others worked with the National Research Council to look at how police work and the policies which govern them. Part of it included taking a look at the use of deadly force.
But a national database never came from the work, Klinger said.
In 2000, some movement toward a national database was made when the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act of 2000 was passed.
The act initiated the Bureau of Justice Statistics Arrest-Related Death Program in 2003. The program provides a national look at the number of people who die either during the process of an arrest or while in the custody of law enforcement personnel.
According to the Bureau, deaths reportable to ARD include those caused by the use of force by law enforcement personnel as well as those not related to actions of law enforcement, such as a suicide.
During the 2003-2009 collection periods, three states, Georgia, Maryland, and Montana, did not submit any records.
Since the reporting is voluntary, law enforcement offices around the country aren’t required to fill out the reports. Click here to see an example of a blank report.
Many police departments are concerned that if there is national data tracking officer-involved shootings then comparisons will be made between departments, Klinger said.
“They don’t want to have to explain to people why their cops shoot more people,” Klinger said. “I say to them, ‘well if in fact you guys are shooting too many people, then the fact is you may need to change things.’”
He also said statistics like murder rates, population and other crime rates have to be taken into account when comparing law enforcement departments with one another.
While people may be shocked to know it’s not easy to track police shootings, Klinger said he is optimistic there will be a push for a national database and he will continue to press for it.
“Public opinion polls have shown people are becoming less trusting in the government,” Klinger said. “As people become less trusting, they want more accountability.”
Lynn Walsh is a data content producer and investigative reporter on the Scripps National Desk. She may be followed on Twitter through the handle @LWalsh.