Among all the statistics on law enforcement in the U.S., there is no accurate accounting of how often police officers use deadly force, reports the Orlando Sentinel and WESH-News Channel 2. Central Florida police agencies from 1999 through 2002 reported only one fourth of the actual fatal shootings by police.
Critics said reliable figures on killings by police are lacking because some agencies worry that it would be embarrassing. “I’ve been ranting about it for 30 years,” said James Fyfe, deputy commissioner for training at the New York Police Department. “I like to say that we live in a democracy where we don’t know how often the people we pay to protect us kill us.”
The U.S. Justice Department gathers data on “justifiable homicides” by police and by private citizens — killings ruled to be legal by authorities — and that information is available to the public. The accuracy of the data has long been questioned because it’s voluntary for police to report on their cases, and many don’t. A detailed report of 20 years of that federal data, released in 2001, included two pages of cautionary notes about errors and omissions.
Last year, criminal-justice experts published “Underreporting of Justifiable Homicides Committed by Police Officers in the United States, 1976-1998.” The experts examined the Justice Department data, which reported 8,658 killings by police in that time, and igures from the National Vital Statistics system, which reported 6,686 deaths by police shootings based on death certificates.
Both are wrong, but for different reasons, said study co-author Brian Wiersema of the Violence Research Group at the University of Maryland. Wiersema’s study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, concluded that “at present, reliable estimates of the number of justifiable homicides committed by police officers in the United States do not exist.”
Accurate data would show whether a particular police agency has used deadly force more or less often than other agencies of the same size, or whether use of deadly force has declined, as many in law enforcement contend, with wider use of nonlethal weapons such as Taser stun guns.