Tuesday, February 21, 2023

One in 20 gun homicides in the U.S. are committed by police

In the US, an estimated one in 20 gun homicides are committed by police, as law enforcement killings have failed to decrease despite years of nationwide protests, reports The Guardian.

Law enforcement officers killed at least 1,192 people in 2022, the highest number recorded in a decade, according to Mapping Police Violence, a prominent non-profit database of police killings. More than 1,100 people were killed by the police in both 2020 and 2021. The vast majority of these deaths were police shootings.

There were more than 25,000 total homicides in the US in 2020 and 26,000 in 2021, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). National data for 2022 is not yet available.

Police shooting deaths represented 5% of all gun homicides in 2020 and 2021, and total police killings represented nearly 5% of all homicides, according to the best available public data.

Because only a small number of deadly incidents each year receive wide media attention, many Americans may not realize that “a meaningful fraction of homicides in the US are police killings”, said Justin Feldman, a researcher at the Center for Policing Equity.

The number of US homicide victims who die in mass shootings each year, for instance, is smaller than the number killed by police. While definitions of “mass shooting” vary, the estimated number of people killed in these incidents have ranged from a few dozen to 700 people a year in recent years.

“There is a lot of fear, with mass shootings and gun violence in general, that some stranger will show up wherever you are and kill you,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, the founder of Mapping Police Violence. “But police contribute a large part to those numbers.”

The circumstances for many murders are listed as unknown in the FBI’s incomplete national crime statistics database, but in 2020 nearly 4,000 people were listed as being killed by a friend or an acquaintance, and about 1,800 were known to be killed by a stranger.

Some police departments have much higher rates of police killings than others. In Vallejo, California, which is known for police violence, the police department was responsible for 30% of the city’s homicides in 2012. Police killed six people that year; a single officer killed three people in three different incidents, and was later promoted.

More than 32,000 Americans have been killed by police since 1980, but official public health statistics have undercounted the number of killings for decades, according to a 2021 study from University of Washington researchers published in the Lancet, a prominent medical journal. Over the past four decades, US police have killed Black people at a rate 3.5 times higher than white people, and have also killed Hispanic and Indigenous people at higher rates, the study estimated.

The rate of fatalities from police violence rose even when the nation’s overall homicide rate sharply declined, with the rate of deaths from police violence rising 38% from the 1980s to the 2010s, the study found. 

The US has much higher rates of both police killings and overall homicides than other wealthy countries. In Europe, the combined number of police killings and state executions remains in the single digits each year in many countries, according to data from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). The US’s annual rate of police killings and state executions, with more than 1,000 deaths a year, is more comparable to Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Cameroon, Libya and Sudan, according to IHME data.

At least one international study has found the rate of police killings “strongly correlates” with overall homicide rates across multiple countries, but also noted that data on police violence is likely to be less reliable in countries where police kill more frequently.

A 2018 paper published in the American Journal of Public Health found that “police were responsible for about 8% of all homicides with adult male victims between 2012 and 2018”, or about one in 12. Frank Edwards, a Rutgers University sociologist and the lead author of that study, said it was not surprising that the current percentage of police homicides would be somewhat lower than 8% when factoring in the killings of women and well as men, and as the national total number of homicides had also increased sharply since 2020.

Public databases from news outlets and non-profits still offer more complete and reliable data on police killings than the US government, more than seven years after the nation’s FBI director called it “embarrassing and ridiculous” that newspapers produced a more accurate national count of US police shootings than the Department of Justice. Mapping Police Violence, for instance, tracks police killings using a combination of state law enforcement data and incident data drawn from media reports and public records requests.

It’s not only national crime data that’s flawed when it comes to homicides by police. For decades, more than half of police killings have been mislabeled as generic homicides or suicides in the CDC’s official death statistics database, said Eve Wool and Mohsen Naghavi, two of the authors of the Lancet paper on police killings.

The undercounting of police killings in public health data is a result of coding failures by coroners, medical examiners and other public health officials, many of whom “work for or are embedded within police departments”, the researchers found.

Because of the lack of official statistics, Feldman and Edwards said, comparing the count of police killings in non-profit databases like Mapping Police Violence with the CDC’s total homicide numbers is the most accurate way to estimate the percentage of homicides committed by police.

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