It has been more than a week since a grand jury reported a decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. Know we have the no indictment decision by a grand jury in New York for Daniel Pantaleo killing Eric Garner. These cases are essentially being classified as justifiable homicide. I’ve been listening to the ensuing discussions and I have some observations, which I will spread across at least two posts.
Anytime issues like these come to fore, I find myself wanting to get a handle on the big picture. I've been doing a little research on the topic and it is quite frustrating. Here is what I've leaned.
According the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR), there were 461 justifiable homicides by police. (UCR) Let us assume this data is valid for the moment. How can we put that in perspective?
Let's compare it to three other countries. The number justifiable homicides was zero in England for 2013, eight in Germany over the last two years, and about twelve per year in Canada. (Source) These countries are smaller than the USA, so lets increase their population to the size of the USA and assume justified homicides would rise by a corresponding number. Here is what you get:
England = 0
Germany = 16
Canada = 110
USA = 461
So we have a much higher rate than comparable nations.
However, I stipulated an assumption that the data is correct. It is not. The UCR only compiles crimes known to police in 750 of more than 17,000 law enforcement entities. Participation is voluntary and inconsistent across entities. (Source) Analysis of data from 105 of the submitting entities shows 47% more incidents than were reported. (Source) For instance, some entities do not consider justifiable homicide an “offense” so they do not report their data. Adjusting for this under-count would mean something like 680 justifiable homicides by law enforcement. But we need to go a step further.
There is no federal clearinghouse collecting data on homicide by law enforcement. On May 1, 2013, a Facebook page called Killed By Police was created that attempts to catalog every death that happens at the hands of police from news sources across the nation. It chronicles every kind of death, including someone who dies of a heart attack after being arrested or dies in a collision with a police vehicle in a high-speed chase. The FiveThirtyEight folks did an analysis of the data, weeding out deaths that were not related to the process of an arrest, and estimated the number deaths to be about 1,100 a year. (Source)
We simply do not know the exact number of justifiable homicides by law enforcement and therefore we have no definitive means of measuring trends in the frequency of such cases. We do not know the characteristics of the people involved. That said, it seems likely that rate of justifiable homicides by law enforcement has been rising.
If we assume the Uniform Crime Report data is from the same law enforcement entities using the same methods from year to year, we see an increase in justifiable homicides by law enforcement from 309 in 2000 to 461 in 2013. (The data only goes back to 1980. The 1999 and 200o stats were the lowest since a previous low of 300 in 1987.) (Source) If we then assume the UCR data as a proxy for what has happened in non-reporting areas as well, then the instances of justifiable homicides by law enforcement has risen by 50% from 2000 to 2013.
Now keep in mind, the rate of crime as reported by the UCR dropped by 20% during the 2000-2013 time frame. The murder rate shows a drop of 5.5 per 100k population to 4.5, about a 20% drop. (Calculated from here.) But also remember that the UCR data is not the best measure of actual incidents of crime. Victimization studies (annual surveys asking about victimization whether reported to police or not) show a 50% drop in crime. (Source)
In short, justifiable homicide by law enforcement is far more common in the USA than in other advanced nations. And the perplexing reality is that it appears to be getting appreciably worse with each passing year, despite less and less crime. Something is not right.
What do you think is going on? I'll offer my thoughts in a follow-up post, including how race figures into this, but I'm curious to know what you think.