Crime statistics may be revealing in and of themselves but are even more useful and revealing when put into the context of the culture of the times, responses to the statistics and any changes they engender. It is also vital to remember that the statistics represent real people who are now forever lost to the loved ones and friends.
Not every civilian who died during an incident involving law enforcement died due to shooting, but the vast majority of civilian deaths during encounters with police involved firearms. Many of those civilians killed had weapons of their own and/or were in the commission of a crime when fatally wounded by law enforcement.
At-A-Glance 2016 Statistics for Civilians Killed by Law Enforcement in the U.S.
- From The Guardian, who sought and received data on civilians killed by law enforcement from official sources and the public at large, 1,091 people died at the hands of law enforcement in 2016, slightly fewer than the 1,138 people in 2015.
- The Washington Post, which instead counted only the civilians killed after being shot by law enforcement, the number for 2016 was 963.
- The civilian deaths secondary to interactions with law enforcement by ethnicity, expressed as numbers per million: Native Americans 10.13; Black 6.64; Hispanic/Latino 3.23; White 2.9; and Asian Pacific Islander 1.17.
At-A-Glance 2016 Statistics for Law Enforcement Killed in the U.S.
- 2016 saw an increase in the number of civilians killed by police, but the fatal shootings of law enforcement officers by civilians also increased in 2016 by 10 percent over 2015.
- A total of 135 law enforcement officers lost their lives in 2016 while on duty from all causes, including traffic accidents. Sixty-four of those officers were shot to death in the line of duty, representing a 56 percent increase in shooting deaths of officers over 2015 totals.
- Ambush-style attacks by civilians on police in 2016 was the highest it has been in the U.S. In two decades; deaths of multiple officers in single incidents in 2016 was the highest it has been since 1932.
It comes as little surprise that the United States, a nation where many people expressed their displeasure with the status quo that they voted in a new president who has no political experience, is in a state of unrest. The availability of firearms and the acceptance of their use, romanticized in adventure movies and television, in addition to video games, must be looked at for their influences on all segments of society.
A telling statistic is that in 2016, there were twice as many guns owned per capita in the United States as there were in 1968 – more than 300 million guns in total. Even with these numbers, the number of American households who own a gun has declined to 1 in 3, from a high of half of all households owning at least one gun in 1980.
U.S. Department of Justice Investigations into Police Practices and Patterns
If 2015 was The Year the World Took Notice of Police Shootings of Civilians in the United States, then 2016 was the year of U.S. Department of Justice investigations into the patterns and practices of police forces alleged to have violations of civilians’ civil and constitutional rights.
Already in 2017, the U.S. Justice Department has released its findings on the Chicago Police Department, including information that law enforcement officers lack sufficient training, along with violations of the civil and constitutional rights of those the officers have sworn to protect and serve. The city of Baltimore, for whom the DOJ released its findings in August 2016, announced it has come to an agreement with the federal agency on a consent decree.
Among those law enforcement agencies that were investigated for civil and/or constitutional violations of civilians in 2016, the DOJ found Ville Platte and Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s office in Louisiana to be in violation of suspects’ Fourth Amendment rights to probable cause in detaining individuals; Ferguson, Missouri where Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014 that set off riots, the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement, and an increased public awareness of the killing of civilians by law enforcement, became the subject of a DOJ lawsuit in February 2016 after the city failed to come to an agreement with the federal agency on how to implement necessary changes to bring its police force into compliance with both civil and constitutional rights.
Altogether, the Department of Justice is involved in either a consent decree or other type of agreement where an outside agency is overlooking the changes being made in community law enforcement where the DOJ has found them to be in violation of civilian rights in 120 jurisdictions, including two agreements in Maricopa County, Arizona.
Neither the Ville Platte Police Department nor the Evangeline Parish sheriff’s office in Louisiana has yet reached an agreement with the DOJ on how to correct the law enforcement activities there that were found to be in violation of federal standards. There are currently two ongoing investigations by the DOJ in Orange County, California.
Journalist Efforts Spur Change in Federal Statistic Taking
FBI Director James Comey expressed dismay in 2015 when he learned of The Guardian’s success in determining the number of civilians killed during encounters with law enforcement through its program, “The Counted” and that of The Washington Post. Federal authorities had a much lower number of such deaths reported to them than did the independent news organization, which relied on a number of resources, including reporting by the public for its information. The Guardian verified all the information provided to them before adding a civilian’s death to its ongoing list in both 2015 and 2016.
The U.S. Department of Justice instituted a trial system of gathering such information in 2016, a system that the program’s lead statistician, Duren Banks, has labeled a success when compared to previous data-gathering efforts, including using information from “The Counted.”
There is still room for improvement in the federal government’s gathering and reporting of such information, such as the voluntary reporting of homicides by police to the FBI, but it is encouraging that some efforts are being made in a positive direction. Despite Congress reauthorizing the Death in Custody Reporting Act in 2014, a law that originated in 2000, some states have still failed to report their data, with no penalties yet imposed for their failure to do so.
Accounting for the deaths of civilians at the hands of law enforcement is more than mere bean-counting. Just as it is important to be able to access other data related to criminal justice and law enforcement, surely the injury or death of human beings while interacting with the very system we entrust to uphold the law is worthy of notice and accurate reporting. It is only when accurate and complete data are compiled that the American public and all interested parties can rely on reports and insights from that information. In this highly computerized age, there seems to be no excuse for failure to report other than obfuscation of the truth — or lack of accepting responsibility for the actions of the law enforcement branch of the criminal justice system.
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