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Mizner reports: "If it seems to you that the police are becoming more violent, you may be right. In 2011, Los Angeles County police shot to death 54 people, some 70 percent more than in 2010. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of people shot by Massachusetts police increased every year."

Are the police out of control? (photo: Philip Andrews/Reuters)
Are the police out of control? (photo: Philip Andrews/Reuters)

How Many People Are American Police Killing?

By David Mizner, Salon

28 January 14


any watchdogs believe the police are killing more innocent Americans than ever. But here's why they can't be sure

On January 4 in Boiling Spring Lakes, North Carolina, Mark Wilsey called 911 because his stepson Keith Vidal, 18, was threatening his mother with a small screwdriver. Vidal, a schizophrenic, had no history of violence, but in this case his family needed help. Two police officers used a taser to subdue Vidal, who weighed 90 pounds. The situation, says Wilsey, was under control. But a third officer, Bryon Vassey, showed up and quickly-within 70 seconds-shot him. "We called for help and they killed our son," said Wilsey.

The killing recalls last month's killing of Dixon Rodriguez, a mentally ill man whose mother had called 911 in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. In recent months, the police have injured or killed a notable number of people. Some were suspects; others posed an alleged threat to police. Some were armed; others weren't. Only a few hours into 2014, Chicago police had shot four in two different incidents. On January 7th in Philadelphia, Darrin Manning, a 16-year old black boy, had emergency surgery for a ruptured testicle after a stop-and-frisk by two white officers: Thomas Purcell and a woman the department hasn't identified.

If it seems to you that the police are becoming more violent, you may be right. In 2011, Los Angeles County police shot to death 54 people, some 70 percent more than in 2010. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of people shot by Massachusetts police increased every year. In 2012, police in New York City shot and killed 16 people, nine more the previous year and the most in 12 years. In 2012, Philadelphia police shot 52 people-the highest number in 10 years.

But whether these statistics reflect a national trend is, at this point, an unanswerable question.

That's because many of the country's 17,000 police departments don't release information on use of force by police, and the federal government makes no serious effort to collect it. While the government gathers and releases extensive information about violence by citizens, it conceals information about violence by police.

"Excessive force by police is one of the big problems," says Brigitt Keller, executive director of the National Police Accountability Project, who cites as causes the militarization of the police, persistent impunity, and a mythology that exaggerates the dangers police face and deters public officials from challenging them. "I believe the problem is getting worse," Keller says, "but it's hard to say for sure without comprehensive information."

A credible national database on use of force by police is a longtime goal of criminologists and reformers. A 1996 Bureau of Justice report notes that, "For decades, criminal justice experts have been calling for increased collection of data on police use of force."

"We don't have a mandate to do that," William Carr, a FBI spokesperson told the Los Vegas Review Journal. "It would take a request from Congress to collect that data." Carr's claim is false: the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act instructs the Attorney General to "acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers" and to "publish and annual summary of the data acquired." Yet 20 years later the data dearth persists.

Many, if not all, police accountability activists believe the police are wounding and killing more people than they were five or ten or twenty years ago, and that a higher percentage of the incidents are unjustified. The trend, they say, is all the more alarming because it has accompanied an overall decline in violent crime.

But in their effort to place the issue on the national agenda, they lack the capacity to make definitive statements. They have to rely on anecdotal evidence and words like "seems" and "suggests." While transparency shouldn't be mistaken for progress, it can be an important means to it. Consider how prison reform advocates have used incarceration data in their increasingly successful push for change.

And the lack of information is an excuse that police chiefs and public officials can hide behind to avoid the problem. Human Rights Watch's 1998 analysis is no less relevant today:

The lack of national data has served to perpetuate a situation in which local and national officials can claim that there is neither a continuing nor a nationwide problem… Moreover, the lack of information supports the federal position that the problem is "local," because the national government has no useful knowledge about it. And knowledge about the problem on a national scale is, of course, essential to the formulation of policy.

Information on police violence exists. Every time a cop fires a gun or otherwise uses force, details about the incident go into a case file. What's missing is an effort to consolidate the information, much less analyze it. Keller attributes the lack of will partly to the identity of the victims, who tend to lack political power. "People who are white and middle class, who are not mentally ill or homeless, don't see this is a problem that affects them," she says.

There's no question that a disproportionate number of those shot by the police are racial minorities and/or people with mental illnesses. In 2012, for example, Chicago police shot 57 people; 50 were black, and 2 were white. In 2011, the Portland Press Herald reported that 42 percent of the people shot by the Maine police since 1990 were mentally ill.

Yet recent victims of police violence include people who don't fit the profile. Like Karl Anders Peltomaa, a 50-year-old white New York City resident whose chin needed stiches after his wife had called 9-11 because he was having a bad reaction to medication. And Kang Wong, an 84-year-old man bloodied by New York City police officers after he'd jaywalked.

But data about the victims of police violence, like all data about police violence, is elusive. While some departments are relatively transparent-the Las Vegas police department actually posts on the internet names of officers who fire weapons-others disclose no information on police violence, and federal collection efforts, such as they are, offer only snapshots. The FBI, through its Uniform Crime Reporting Program, captures data about killings by police, but this has a fatal flaw in that it relies on the voluntary participation of police departments. The Bureau of Justice survey asks about use of force in its Police Public Contact Survey, but this is done only every three years and, for obvious reasons, weeds out those killed or seriously injured by the police.

"All the federal government would have to do is say [to police departments], provide this data or you won't receive funding," says criminologist David Klinger, a former police officer. But the administration, like previous ones, isn't inclined to do so, and while a bipartisan group in Congress seeks information about people killed by the U.S. military, there's no comparable effort to uncover information about people killed by the U.S. police.

Klinger isn't waiting for the federal government to act. Last year, the Los Angeles Police Department hired him to oversee a study of shootings by the police going back to 1998. The study is capturing a range of information, including whether the target of the shooting had a weapon and whether the police department deemed it justified.

"I can't think of a more important priority in a republic than knowing the facts about when agents of the state put bullets in people," Klinger says.

The study is the brainchild of Assistant Chief Sandy Jo MacArthur, who has 15 people in the department working part-time to help gather and input data. "We needed information deep enough to allow us to recognize meaningful trends and connections," MacArthur says. "The purpose is to draw evidence-based lessons that we can put into training, so that we can prevent officer-involved shootings."

The study, projected to last two years, will produce a data base accessible to the public, although names of the police officers will be excised. The department will input information as it comes in. "I can't find anything like it anywhere," says MacArthur, who reached out to Klinger in part because of his research on shootings by police in St. Louis and in part because she'd known him thirty years ago when he was an officer in South Central Los Angeles.

Klinger is a reform-minded ex-cop but an ex-cop nonetheless. He believes shootings by the police are rare, and that his data may reveal restraint on their part. In any case, he hopes the political sensitivity of this data won't deter police departments from becoming more transparent. "Let's get the data, then we can have the arguments," he says.

MacArthur also has ambitious goals for the program, which she sees as model for other departments and the seed of a national database. "This is extremely important for the future of law enforcement," she says.

A serious weakness of the LAPD study is that it's not collecting demographic information on people shot by the police. Because of the disproportionate impact of police violence on people and communities of color, information on the race of victims is essential-and often closely guarded. In 2009, a State Supreme Court judge ordered the New York police department to reveal the race of people shot by the police. The NYCLU had sued because the NYPD had stopped disclosing this information after four white officers killed Amadou Diallo-the infamous 41 shots.

The lack of information on police violence is a matter of not just transparency and public safety but also civil rights. We need more studies, more legal action, and, above all, more pressure from the public. your social media marketing partner


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+23 # John S. Browne 2014-01-29 00:45

I'll say!

But the best advice to people is:


And most cases where you would consider it to be absolutely necessary, are NOT such cases.


They often even treat the innocent person or people who called 911 like they did something wrong, taser them, and falsely arrest them and accuse them of "resisting arrest" and "assaulting a police officer" (all you have to do is accidentally rub up against or bump one of the officers, usually the one handcuffing you, to be falsely accused of "assaulting a police officer"). They usually tack as many charges on as possible in order to make you look like a dangerous "criminal", and so you'll be less likely to get out of it without doing jail or prison time, and huge fines and/or fees being exacted from you. So, don't trust ANY cop(s) whatsoever! It's foolhardy.

+14 # goodsensecynic 2014-01-29 07:03
The police in the Greater Toronto Area are evidently not as hair-triggered as those in Philadelphia or Los Angeles, but there have been a few instances of dubious killings of black youths in recent years, and some striking instances of the killing of mentally ill people brandishing a pair of scissors and the like.

A particularly egregious case of an 18-yr-old boy, standing alone in an emptied street car (he'd told everyone including the operator to get off). The lad was holding a small knife and the vehicle was surrounded by about a dozen officers.

One of them fired about ten rounds and hit the kid with eight bullets. Then, for good measure, someone tasered the lifeless body. Why does this one stand out? Because a civilian passer-by recorded the incident with his cell-phone camera.

The moral? Immediately, give law enforcement officers more training in how to handle people with mental issues and insist on a protocol in which mental health professional or specially trained officers be brought in to defuse such situations. In the long-term take measures to change the violent, self-protective "cop culture." In the meantime, keep your cell-phones at hand: coroners' inquests need the evidence that will otherwise be suppressed to battle the perjury that will almost inevitably be forthcoming from those who "serve and protect" (themselves).
+15 # RMDC 2014-01-29 07:53
Thanks for this article. It is important. The police have changed since 9-11. They are now an occupying force or a colonial military police. They still have "protect and serve" painted on their cars, but this is only there as a humiliation -- just as in the case of the US marine in Iraq shoving someone down with his rifle butt and saying "we're here for your fucking freedom."

It is strange that the US regime keeps data on everything, but not on how many people the police murder.

Welcome to the police state. It has been developing for a long time but now it is here. I am white so I know that I will be treated better. African Americans and Mexican American will be treated with the same brutality that they would get in any colonial outpost.
+14 # freelyb 2014-01-29 09:17
Excellent. An important issue of growing concern. We need much more control of the controllers.
+12 # fredboy 2014-01-29 09:26
And Charlotte NC: 10 shots, point blank, while an unarmed, injured African American man was on his knees. Look it up.
+15 # fredboy 2014-01-29 09:28
A great, very thoughtful police chief once told me "Half become cops to help others, the other half become cops to bully. Those are the ones we have to screen out of the process."
+5 # RMDC 2014-01-30 07:00
Seems now they are screening the bullies in.
+6 # skylinefirepest 2014-01-29 10:33
Some very good points made here. Fredboy, the cop in Charlotte has now been charged according to recent news...time will tell if true justice will prevail. I know of several small town departments that have full auto weapons. Some even have the armored vehicles that are surplus from the feds.
+4 # TomThumb 2014-01-29 14:41
I would speculate that the increased murder of US civilians by their police is a result of returning Iraq and Afghan vets. Police are disproportionat ely vets and this is what occurred during those occupations. Tommy Rimes
-5 # skylinefirepest 2014-01-29 21:47
Tom, I have to take issue with that line of thinking...too many vets have no jobs and personally I only know a few leo's that are vets. And in my line of work I know probably eighty percent of the leo's in the county.
+2 # mrsromo33 2015-03-26 06:26
I am a veteran and it becomes an issue with vets who have reported and or unreported ptsd. Now more then ever there should be more psychological exams on civilians and vets alike. Ptsd comes in all shapes and sizes. And it happens for many different reasons. My ptsd is not like all the others and others would say the same. But in the end ptsd diagnosed or undiagnosed becomes a major issue that I feel will start becoming an excuse for a random our an innocent shooting!
And what is this talk about Leo's? If we're talking astrological they tend to be some of the most aggressive. I've had my moments with Leo's where I was not the aggressor. They were! If it's not astrological then what kind of Leo's are your speaking of? Other them there sign being a lion that's all I can link. I'm totally lost on the lion aspect and completely do while heartedly believe what i wrote about more psych evals needed now more then even in ask existing police and incoming. I wanted tho join but stopped myself because of my terrified with my ptsd some with ptsd may not have the insight or medical knowledge to understand triggers.
+1 # RICHARDKANEpa 2014-01-30 15:21
It helped cut down police shootings when routine traffic stops are video recorded.

A source of police shootings is when a suspect is accused of trying to grab an officers gun. this isn't always the true story. If the police guns were kept in fingerprint locking holsters, there would then be less such incidents real or imagined.

If laws make carrying a gun much less a crime if it was kept in a fingerprint locking holster or a padlocked duffel bag, recent incidents like in Philadelphia where a pair of robbers grabed to ladies purses and when the daughter refused to let go was shot would occur less often and a road raged driver waving a duffel bad less likely to escalate.

People will not be without a gun if they fear being shot, but now bank robbers don't need to fear this and less often rob a bank with a gun.
+2 # mrsromo33 2015-03-26 09:53
Here is a little about me as I stated above I am a veteran with PTSD. And it is an issue with my fellow veterans and even civilians (those who don't know are non-military). The is not just with those who have reported PTSD but also with those with unreported PTSD. Now more then ever there should be more psychological exams on civilians (COMING IN TO THE POLICE DEPARTMENT AND THOSE ALREADY IN) and ALL VETERANS alike. PTSD comes in all shapes and sizes, any trauma and in all races. And it happens for many different reasons. My PTSD is not like all the others and others would say the same. But in the end PTSD diagnosed or undiagnosed IS a ticking time bomb and it will become an issue if not a major issue in the police departments I feel it's starting now but if not now then soon, and Mark my words, it will start becoming an excuse for a random or innocent shooting!
***Mandatory psychological testing is cheaper then dealing with all of the things brought on by a shooting and especially an innocent shooting. Do it now before it becomes an issue. If it hasn't already. Current cops are going to start saying they're being targeted, which then becomes a trigger and/or Trauma which if something happens they now have a bigger trigger and/or Trauma which then becomes the excuse For a kill.

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