An average of 545 people killed by local and state law enforcement officers in the US went uncounted in the country’s most authoritative crime statistics every year for almost a decade, according to a report released on Tuesday.
The first-ever attempt by US record-keepers to estimate the number of uncounted “law enforcement homicides” exposed previous official tallies as capturing less than half of the real picture. The new estimate – an average of 928 people killed by police annually over eight recent years, compared to 383 in published FBI data – amounted to a more glaring admission than ever before of the government’s failure to track how many people police kill.
The revelation called into particular question the FBI practice of publishing annual totals of “justifiable homicides by law enforcement” – tallies that are widely cited in the media and elsewhere as the most accurate official count of police homicides.
The new estimates added crucial framing to a criminal justice crisis in the US that was coming into sharp focus this week. A Justice Department report expected to be published on Wednesday exposed serial civil rights abuses by police in Ferguson, Missouri. On Monday, the president’s taskforce on policing issued recommendations for better data collection as part of a call for top-to-bottom criminal justice reform.
“There was a great emphasis on the need to collect more data,” Barack Obama said after a meeting with the taskforce. “Right now, we do not have a good sense, and local communities do not have a good sense, of how frequently there may be interactions with police and community members that result in a death, result in a shooting.”
The president’s warning of a national blind spot on police killings significantly amplified growing calls for policing reforms and for a revolution in crime statistics. Yet Obama did not, perhaps, capture just how bad the information was that the country has been working with. Independent tallies had previously indicated that the FBI’s “justifiable homicide” counts were flawed. But until recently, the FBI discouraged challenges to its numbers, insisting that they were carefully audited – and pointing out that the bureau, in any case, was required by law to publish them.
Tuesday’s bureau of justice statistics (BJS) report, produced in collaboration with RTI International, the research institute, explodes the notion – if its findings are accurate – that the figures the FBI publishes annually are anything other than hugely misleading.
The data underlying the FBI tally “is estimated to cover 46% of officer-involved homicides at best” for the years 2003-2009 and 2011, the BJS report concluded. But the published FBI tallies cover even fewer of the total deaths, closer to 41%, in part because the FBI publishes no data from Florida. A separate tally of “arrest-related deaths”, conducted by BJS itself, was slightly more accurate for the years in question, capturing 49% of law enforcement homicides, at best, the report found.
You can read the entire research published by The Guardian here.