Police Killings by the Numbers
If there has been one dominant, sociologically-relevant story in the news lately,
it has arguably been the treatment of African Americans by the police.
From Michael Brown in Missouri to Eric Garner in Staten Island to the McKinney, Texas,
swimming pool incident, there is a heightened awareness, an ongoing conversation,
and a growing sentiment of anger about how race influences policing.
As increasing attention has been devoted to this social problem, and more questions
have been raised about it, there have been calls for greater accountability from law enforcement.
In particular, many people want to know how many citizens are killed each year by police officers. Unfortunately, because the United States government does not keep a systematic record
of these deaths, this data has been either unavailable or unreliable. That is, until now.
An ambitious project was started recently by the U.S. branch of the U.K. news organization,
The Guardian. The project, appropriately called The Counted, is an attempt to document
every person killed by law enforcement in the United States this year.
Using their own reporting as well as crowd sourced information,
The Counted database offers details about every police fatality in 2015,
including the victim’s name, age, race, gender, location, cause of death,
and whether or not they were armed.
The Guardian recognizes that The Counted is “an imperfect work in progress” and as such,
is regularly updated and revived. Still, since its launch in the beginning of June,
The Counted has garnered quite a bit of attention.
Members of Congress have pointed to this new project as an important momentum builder
in the efforts to create a permanent national database of police killings.
Sociologists should take note too. Despite its imperfections, this database offers us a wonderful tool for both research and teaching. Although it is ostensibly being created to answer the question
of how many people are killed each year at the hands of the police,
The Counted is also a generator for important sociological questions.
Knowing about these lethal encounters is one thing; it’s equally important to understand
why they occur, how they occur, and whether they occur in other nations.
The question-generating aspect of The Counted was illustrated recently in one of the first articles that The Guardian published about their new project. Jamiles Lartey, a reporter for the news agency (and, full disclosure, a former student of mine), used the current data from The Counted
to make some interesting comparisons between the United States and other countries:
Police in the U.S. fatally shot 59 people in the first 24 days of 2015.
In England and Wales combined, 55 people have been shot by police in the past 24 years.
In the first five months of 2015, police in Stockton, California fatally shot 3 people.
In Iceland, there has been one fatal shooting by police in the past 71 years.
More people have been shot and killed each week by the police in the United States this year
than are typically killed by German police in an entire year.
Police in the U.S. fatally shot 97 people in March 2015.
In Australia, 94 people were officially reported being killed by police during the 19 years
Police in California fatally shot 72 people in the first five months of 2015.
In Canada, the average number of fatal police shootings per year is 25.
Antonio Zambrano-Montes, who was found throwing rocks at cars in Pasco, Washington,
had 17 bullets fired at him by police in his fatal shooting.
In Finland, police officers fired 6 bullets during all of 2013.
There is no doubt that these differences between the United States and other countries are startling. But we must keep in mind that these comparisons are based on raw data that merely describe
what is happening; they do not tell us why this is happening. If you are thinking sociologically
about these comparisons, and about the database in general, then you are probably
finding yourself flooded with sociological questions.
Here are some that came to my mind:
What is about the culture and social structure of places like Finland and Iceland that make it so rare for police to resort to deadly force? How do the police and the public interact in these countries? What are the defining characteristics of the relationship between the police and the public, and how (and why) is this different than in the United States?
How did the U.S. become so much more of a violent society than its Western counterparts? If deadly force by the police in the U.S. is justified, on what grounds is it defended? If deadly force by the police in the U.S. is not justified, why does it occur in law enforcement agencies around the country?
Why is police violence drastically different in states of comparable size such as Oklahoma (population 3.8 million and 23 people killed by police this year) versus Connecticut (population 3.6 million and 1 police killing this year)? Are police tactics, training academies, or law enforcement cultures different in states with a higher number of killings or is there something else to account for these disparities?
Whether you are a student of sociology or a social researcher, you can mine this data to draw inferences. You can try to decipher between probabilities and certainties, between causation and correlation, and between realities and assumptions. As a catalyst for future research, a pedagogical tool for sociological learning, and a clarion call for social activism, The Counted database offers many possibilities. I encourage you to take a look at this evolving website, see what sociological questions come to mind, and then set out to provide an intellectually sound answer to your questions.
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