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HOLMBERG: It’s a crime that we don’t know who police shoot and how often

Posted at 12:24 AM, Aug 20, 2014
and last updated 2014-08-20 00:24:38-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- We’ve been hearing a lot about racial injustice since an unarmed teen was shot to death in Missouri on August 9.

So just how often do white – or black - police officers shoot African-Americans in this country?

How many whites or members of other races are killed by cops?

The crazy thing is, we don’t know. We really have no clear idea.

But the FBI keeps up with every other kind of crime in its annual review called the Uniform Crime Reports.

In 2012, for instance, there were 14,827 murders, 84.376 rapes, 223,123 bicycles stolen and 29,462 pockets picked.

But we don’t know how many people were killed or injured by police officers across the country. There are some approximate numbers for justifiable fatal use of force cases kept by the FBI, but these are known to be woefully incomplete.

“Our government pretty much has statistics on virtually everything,” former FBI agent and crime author Jim Fisher told me during a telephone interview from his Pennsylvania home. “We could probably find out how many pounds of potatoes the citizens of Wisconsin ate in 1994. Yet on something this important, why don’t they keep the records?”

This has been a known problem for nearly a half-century.

A 1977 study looking at excessive use of force cases by The Police Foundation concluded: “The lack of systematic, centralized data
collection in many departments inhibits the rational development of new policies, training programs, and
enforcement procedures.”

Twenty years ago, this chronic lack of reliable data on the extent of excessive force received the attention of the United States Congress
in enacting the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The Act requires the Attorney General to collect data on excessive force by police and to publish an annual report from the data.

These reports have been generated, but based on data so incomplete, it’s pretty much guesswork. [CLICK HERE to see the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ long-term summary of those reports]

Jim Fisher, who has written extensively on this issue and the militarization of police departments, authored what is often-cited as a very thorough one-year analysis of police use-of-force cases. He did a daily computer database search for on-duty, police-involved shootings across the nation for all of 2011. He found 607 fatal use-of-force shootings – more than 200 above what the FBI reported for that year – along with about 500 non-fatal police-involved shootings. [BONUS:  Fisher's report]

Fisher believes this ultimate in government action – taking or maiming a life – needs to be carefully recorded for all to see.

I completely agree. These numbers are similar to cameras that are now virtually everywhere. They can help keep police, and us, honest in our encounters. These numbers can dispel myths or eliminate doubt about them. They can help train and reduce fatalities to citizens AND police, because there is a distinct correlation between them.

Interestingly, one of the better sites to read about these cases each year is on Wikipedia. Granted, the listed summaries are from the incomplete list of reported slayings, but you can get a pretty good feel for what’s going on.

After reading about 300 of these summaries of fatal shootings by police, I can tell you this for sure:

If you don’t want to be killed by police, do not commit crime. Do not fight with the police. Do not point anything at them. Do not make any sudden moves.

And even that may not work.

The absolute best thing is, when the police are here, you be elsewhere.

Friends, there’s no doubt there’s way too much crime, violence and disrespect in this nation.

Being a cop is a tough, often thankless job – damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

But we as a nation not having good, clean statistics about use-of-force and killings by police is not only wrong.

It’s a crime.