The last several years have brought new focus on police tactics and use of force. The death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, during an arrest by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, shocked the nation’s conscience and led to protests in 140 cities, with some turning violent.
Despite the subsequent prosecution and murder conviction of Chauvin, protests have continued in the months since when subsequent incidents of African Americans being harmed in police incidents are reported.
Where do things stand two years after the Floyd incident?
Ironically, the FBI and its National Use-of-Force Data Collection offers little insight as it has been hampered by a lack of participation by contributing law enforcement agencies. For example, in 2021 only 31 out of 892 law enforcement agencies in California submitted data to the FBI and those agencies represent only 29% of sworn peace officers in California. The lack of participation is nationwide, meaning that there is no effective and reliable central database for police use of force.
After the death of Michael Brown in 2014 the Washington Post recognized the disparity between its own research into fatal police use of force and the FBI’s lack of accurate statistics. In 2015, it began gathering its own use of force data in an online database called “Fatal Force”, using “news accounts, social media, and police reports” to compile its data. Since the project began, over 5000 incidents of deadly force by police have been logged.
The Post confirms what many activists have been saying: African Americans and Hispanic Americans are more likely than white Americans to be killed by police based on their percentage of the population. The latest figures show that, since 2015, 1,674 African Americans, 1,127 Hispanic Americans, 3,181 Whites, and 256 “Others” have been killed by police. Based on the population, this means African Americans are killed at nearly twice the rate as Whites.
But it is important to have the full context of these cases. As the Post reports, in 75% of incidents, the police were under attack or defending someone under attack. In a sign of progress, they reported in 2018 that shootings of “unarmed”, in particular unarmed Black men, had declined.
In 40% of the “unarmed” shootings, officers were under physical attack and the remaining 60% involved flight, verbal threats, and even accidents and misfires.
Of the 1,674 fatal shootings of African Americans by police since 2015 — less than 250 per year – 75% were armed, while the rest were unarmed but still combative, fleeing (possibly after having discarded a weapon), were making verbal threats, or were the victims of mistake, accident, or criminal homicide.
Examples of controversial police shootings include unintended bystanders, unarmed suspects, and armed individuals who were not the focus of the investigation. Some are “suicide by cop” – the situation created by mentally ill individuals who cannot bring themselves kill themselves and precipitate a police shooting. These incidents, while tragic and deserving of scrutiny and re-evaluation of tactics, often do not rise to criminal conduct by police.
The recent police shooting of Jayland Walker in Akron, Ohio has the characteristics of a racist shooting. Walker was black, unarmed, and shot over 40 times in the back while fleeing. Yet, further evidence has revealed that Walker allegedly fired a handgun at officers from his vehicle (a handgun and loaded magazine was found on the vehicle’s passenger seat); he was wearing a ski mask covering his entire head; and one of the officers that fired was himself black. The investigation is ongoing, but news reports and hyperbole often outrun what really happened.
Police make over 14 million custodial arrests per year, and the vast majority are made without incident. That’s in addition to tens of millions of contacts made through car stops and other encounters. In a society where citizens possess an estimated 400 million firearms, and fatal shootings of police are on the increase, there simply is no comparison around the world to the realities of policing in the United States.
And lost in all of this are crime victims. African Americans suffer from dramatically higher crime victimization rates in virtually every category of violent crime than white or Hispanic Americans.
Despite these tragedies, more factual transparency is needed. State and local law enforcement must provide timely and accurate information to the FBI regarding police use of force. In the information vacuum we now face – misinformation fills the void and unscrupulous players exploit that information to damaging and violent effects.
Steve Smith is a senior fellow in urban studies at the Pacific Research Institute.