Jerome Karabel, Huffington Post - When the question of how often [police] killings take place quite naturally arose, the shocking answer was that no one knew — a state of affairs the FBI director James Comey has aptly described as “embarrassing and ridiculous.” Though the FBI annually issues a report that provides figures on “justified police homicides,” reporting from local police forces is voluntary and thousands of them turn in no information. Investigations by the Wall Street Journal and FiveThirtyEight determined that hundreds of police killings went unreported annually, but they could do no more than provide rough estimates. This is in striking contrast to many European countries, where every killing by the police is carefully recorded; indeed, in Germany and Finland, each and every shot fired by the police is entered into a national database.
In response to the upsurge in public interest in police killings, the Washington Post and Guardian have stepped in to perform a task that should have been done by the government: the recording of every police killing...
As recently as the summer of 2014, when the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner thrust the issue of police killings into national prominence, the most widely used estimate of the number of people killed by police was provided by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report: slightly more than 400 per year. But we now know that this figure was a gross underestimation, for the actual number is more than 1,100 police killings each year — about one every eight hours... In Germany in 2012, a total of seven people were killed by the police, and in England a single person was killed in 2013 and 2014 combined. And Japan, a nation of 126 million people that is as non-violent as the US is violent, had no police killings over the past two years.
Those killed by the police are of course not representative of the population. About 95 percent are male, and approximately half are 34-years-old or younger. African-Americans are heavily over-represented among the dead, at about one in four — double their percentage of the population. Whites constitute about half of those killed by the police and Hispanics 15 percent, with the remainder Asian-Americans, Native-Americans, and “unknown.” According to the Guardian, about one in four of those killed by the police — more than 250 people per year — suffer from mental illness.
Though 88 percent of those killed by the police die by gunshot, death by other means is not uncommon. Tasers, advertised as a “safe” alternative to guns, can be lethal; through October 31 of this year, tasers had killed 47 people. Death from being struck by police vehicles, often in car chases that take innocent lives, resulted in 31 deaths during the first ten months of 2015. Death in custody — the tragic case of Freddie Gray in Baltimore is the best known — has taken 35 lives. African-Americans have been disproportionately frequent victims of deaths by taser and in custody, comprising 38 percent and 32 percent of all victims, respectively, compared to 24 percent of all police killings (with 11 percent “unknown”).
Though the horrifying and historically powerful image of the unarmed black man shot by a policeman is now firmly imprinted in the public’s mind, the majority of those killed by the police are in fact armed. But not all weapons are as deadly as guns; in the Guardian study, almost one-third were non-gun weapons, including baseball bats, machetes, and knives. In some cases, what seemed to be a gun turned out to be a fake gun: a BB gun, an air gun, and — in a few tragic instances — a toy gun held by a teenager.
But there is no question that policing in America is a dangerous job and that law enforcement officers sometimes face genuinely lethal threats. Yet it is also true that no small number of the people killed by the police are unarmed. Here the Guardian and Washington Post investigations diverge sharply, with the Guardian and the Post identifying 189 and 77 such cases, respectively, through October 31st of this year. But the difference is more apparent than real, for the Post only includes those individuals who are shot by the police, while the Guardian includes deaths by taser, police vehicles, and in custody as well as shooting.
Since it is police shootings of the unarmed that are at the epicenter of the current controversy, these cases warrant special scrutiny. The particulars of each case vary yet there is a pattern in who is killed; of the 77 such cases documented by the Washington Post, 36 percent are black men. This is well above the figure for all police killings and, when combined with the over-representation of African Americans among those killed by tasers and in custody (almost all of whom were unarmed), the overall pattern confirms that special sense of vulnerability felt by black people in their encounters with the police is founded in reality.
Comparison with lynching
The first reliable statistics on lynching begin in 1882, and they show
an average of 67 African-Americans lynched per year between 1882 and
1890. But lynching’s high point came in the 1890s, at the very time when
Jim Crow laws were imposed throughout the South. The peak year was
1892, when 161 African-Americans (out of a total of 230) were lynched —
an average of more than three every week. Lynchings also became more
racialized during this time. Though mobs also lynched whites, Mexicans,
Asians and Native-Americans, blacks constituted an ever-growing
proportion of victims — 44 percent in the 1880s, 72 percent in the 1890s
and 89 percent between 1900 and 1909.