Documenting Police Killings

One of the sources of confusion arising during recent controversies over police killings in Missouri and in New York has been the lack of good and consistent data on similar incidents. Congress just passed legislation to revive a lapsed 2000-2006 data collection law, but as veteran journalist Blake Fleetwood notes in a web-exclusive piece for Ten Miles Square today, the earlier law wasn’t enforced. As a result we know less than we should about police killings and such closely related issues as the risk to police of being themselves killed by lethal force in the line of duty. But by piecing together available data, Fleetwood does reach some tentative conclusions well worth testing with fresh data.

A Washington Monthly analysis of police homicides found wide discrepancies in the rate of police killings among major metropolitan police departments, when measured against population figures.

Contrary to popular belief, New York City—-with a police homicide rate of 1 in 123,529 citizens—-ranks near the top (best, least people killed) of large cities in the U.S. The NYPD killed 68 people from 2007 – 2012 out of a population of 8.4 million.

In Miami-Dade County, in a population of 2.5 million, (less than a third of the people living in NYC) police killed 68 citizens during that same five-year period. This means that citizens of Miami are 3.5 times more likely to killed by their local policeman than their counterparts in New York City.

An amalgamated review of police shooting data from the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and figures from 105 major police departments (obtained by the Wall Street Journal) —- when overlaid with population figures —- revealed that the Los Angeles Police Department killed 111 citizens during this period in a population of 3.8 million, which works out to one police homicide per 21,229 persons. This indicates that the average citizen’s chance of being killed by a policeman is nearly six times greater in Los Angeles than in New York City.

Fleetwood esttimates that the total number of police killings from 2007-2012 probably exceeded three thousand. Probably half or more of those killed did not have firearms. Moreover, while no one wants to expose police officers to undue risk, some facts remain that contradict the impression that it’s open season on the police:

In five years, 2008 to 2012, only one policeman was killed by a firearm in the line of duty in New York City. Police officers are many times more likely to commit suicide than to be killed by a criminal. Eight NYC policemen took their own lives in 2012, alone.

Comparatively, a fisherman is 10 times more likely to be killed on the job than a police officer, according to national figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A logging worker is eight times more likely than a police officer to die on the job, and a garbage man is three times more likely to die while working.

Most policemen killed on the job die in auto accidents, according to FBI statistics.

What can be done to reduce the number of police killings without making the lives of officers more dangerous? Fleetwood points to better training of a sort that used to be available not that long ago:

Twenty years ago Bill Clinton funded the Police Corps, whose mission was to train elite policemen with physical and mental conditioning very much like the training of the Seals and Green Berets. The recruits spent a year role-playing through every possible situation. The Police Corps produced 1,000 of the best trained and most professional policeman in the country.

But it was expensive, and, according to Joe Klein, it was killed by George W. Bush.

If the United States had better trained, more professional police, we certainly would not have so many police homicides, which are tearing apart the social fabric of our country.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.