Police use of deadly force in the United States

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In the United States, use of deadly force by police has been a high-profile and contentious issue.[1] Police killings are one of the leading causes of death for young men of color in the United States.[2]


Although Congress instructed the Attorney General in 1994 to compile and publish annual statistics on police use of excessive force, this was never carried out, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation does not collect these data either.[3] Consequently, no official national database exists to track such killings.[4] This has led multiple non-governmental entities to attempted to create comprehensive databases of police shootings in the United States.[5] The National Violent Death Reporting System is a more complete database to track police homicides than either the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR) or the Centers for Disease Control's National Vital Statistics System (NVSS).[6] This is because both the SHR and NVSS under-report the number of police killings.[7]

Government data collection

Through the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, specifically Section 210402, the U.S. Congress mandated that the attorney general collect data on the use of excessive force by police and publish an annual report from the data.[8] However, the bill lacked provisions for enforcement.[9] In part due to the lack of participation from state and local agencies, the Bureau of Justice Statistics stopped keeping count in March 2014.[10]

Two national systems collect data that include homicides committed by law enforcement officers in the line of duty. The National Center for Health Statistics maintains the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS), which aggregates data from locally filed death certificates. State laws require that death certificates be filed with local registrars, but the certificates do not systematically document whether a killing was legally justified nor whether a law enforcement officer was involved.[11]

The FBI maintains the Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR), which relies on state and local law enforcement agencies voluntarily submitting crime reports.[11] A study of the years 1976 to 1998 found that both national systems under-report justifiable homicides by police officers, but for different reasons.[11] In addition, from 2007 to 2012, more than 550 homicides by the country's 105 largest law enforcement agencies were missing from FBI records.[12]

Records in the NVSS did not consistently include documentation of police officer involvement. The UCR database did not receive reports of all applicable incidents. The authors concluded that "reliable estimates of the number of justifiable homicides committed by police officers in the United States do not exist."[11] A study of killings by police from 1999 to 2002 in the Central Florida region found that the national databases included (in Florida) only one-fourth of the number of persons killed by police as reported in the local news media.[13]"Nationally, the percentage of unreported killings by police is probably lower than among agencies in Central Florida..."[13]

The Death In Custody Reporting Act required states to report individuals who die in police custody. It was active without enforcement provisions from 2000 to 2006 and restored in December 2014, amended to include enforcement through withdrawal of federal funding for non-compliant departments.[9]

An additional bill requiring all American law enforcement agencies to report killings by their officers was introduced in the U.S. Senate in June 2015.[14]

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based on data from medical examiners and coroners, killings by law enforcement officers (not including legal executions) was the most distinctive cause of death in Nevada, New Mexico, and Oregon from 2001 to 2010. In these states, the rate of killings by law enforcement officers was higher above national averages than any other cause of death considered.[15][16] The database used to generate those statistics, the CDC WONDER Online Database, has a U.S. total of 5,511 deaths by "Legal Intervention" for the years 1999-2013 (3,483 for the years 2001-2010 used to generate the report) excluding the subcategory for legal execution.[17]

Crowd-sourced projects to collect data

Mainly following public attention to police-related killings after several well-publicized cases in 2014 (e.g., Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and John Crawford III), several projects were begun to crowd-source data on such events. These include Fatal Encounters[18] and U.S. Police Shootings Data at Deadspin.[19] Another project, the Facebook page "Killed by Police" (or web-page tracks killings starting May 1, 2013.[20] In 2015, CopCrisis used the data to generate info-graphics about police killings.[21] A project affiliated with Black Lives Matter,[22] Mapping Police Violence, tracks killings starting January 1, 2013, and conducts analyses and visualizations examining rates of killings by police department, city, state, and national trends over time.

The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, started in 2009 by David Packman, is now owned and operated by the Cato Institute. It covers a range of police behaviors.[23] The most recent addition is The Puppycide Database Project, which collects information about police use of lethal force against animals, as well as people killed while defending their animals from police, or unintentionally while police were trying to kill animals.[24]


The annual average number of justifiable homicides alone was previously estimated to be near 400.[25] Updated estimates from the Bureau of Justice Statistics released in 2015 estimate the number to be around 930 per year, or 1240 if assuming that non-reporting local agencies kill people at the same rate as reporting agencies.[26] The Washington Post has tracked shootings (only) since 2015, reporting 990 shootings in that year,[27] and 963 in 2016.[28]

Deaths by age group in 2015, according to The Counted

The Guardian newspaper runs its own database, The Counted, which tracked US killings by police and other law enforcement agencies including from gunshots, tasers, car accidents and custody deaths. In 2015 they and counted 1146 deaths and 1093 deaths for 2016. The database can be viewed by state, gender, race/ethnicity, age, classification (e.g., "gunshot"), and whether the person killed was armed.[29] The Washington Post also keeps a database of police killings for 2015 to 2017. The database can also classify people in various categories including race, age, weapon etc. The database lists 995 deaths for 2015, 963 for 2016 and 976 for 2017.[30]

Racial patterns

A database collected by The Guardian concluded that 1093 people in 2016 were killed by the police. The rate of fatal police shootings per million was 10.13 for Native Americans, 6.6 for Black people, 3.23 for Hispanics; 2.9 for White people and 1.17 for Asians. The database showed by total that white people, who make up 62% of the US population, were less frequently killed by police than any other race or ethnicity. According to the Washington Post database of police shootings, African Americans are 2.5 times as likely to be killed by a police officer than white people.[31][32] A 2015 study found that unarmed blacks were 3.49 times more likely to be shot by police than were unarmed whites.[33] Another study published in 2016 concluded that the mortality rate of legal interventions among Black and Hispanic people was 2.8 and 1.7 times higher than that among White people. Another 2015 study concluded that black people were 2.8 times more likely to be killed by police than whites. They also concluded that black people were more likely to be unarmed than white people who were in turn more likely to be unarmed than Hispanic people shot by the police.[34][35] A 2018 study in the American Journal of Public Health found the mortality rate by police per 100,000 was 1.9 to 2.4 for black men, 0.8 to 1.2 for Hispanic men and 0.6 to 0.7 for white men.[36]

A 2015 study by Harvard professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr. found that there was no racial bias in the use of lethal police force between black and white suspects in similar situations. The study did however find that blacks and Hispanics are significantly more likely to experience non-lethal use of force.[37] A 2019 paper by Princeton University political scientists disputed the findings by Fryer, saying that if police had a higher threshold for stopping whites, this might mean that the whites, Hispanics and blacks in Fryer's data are not similar.[38] A 2016 study published in the journal Injury Prevention concluded that African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos were more likely to be stopped by police compared to Asians and whites, but found that there was no racial bias in the likelihood of being killed or injured after being stopped.[39] A January 2017 report by the DOJ found that the Chicago Police Department had "unconstitutionally engaged in a pattern of excessive and deadly force" and an independent task force, created by the mayor of Chicago, stated that police "have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color."[40] A 2018 study found that minorities are disproportionately killed by police but that white officers are not more likely to use lethal force on blacks than minority officers.[41] A 2019 study in the Journal of Politics found that police officers were more likely to use lethal force on blacks, but that this "most likely driven by higher rates of police contact among African Americans rather than racial differences in the circumstances of the interaction and officer bias in the application of lethal force."[42] A 2019 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that blacks and American Indian/Alaska Natives are more likely to be killed by police than whites, and that Latino men are more likely to be killed than white men.[2] According to the study, "for young men of color, police use of force is among the leading causes of death."[2] A 2019 study in PNAS concluded from a dataset of fatal shootings that white officers were not more likely to shoot minority civilians than non-white officers,[43] but since it did not consider non-fatal shootings, the finding was disputed and the journal later published an article stating that study's approach was not mathematically capable of supporting its claims.[44]

An early study, published in 1977, found that a disproportionately high percent of those killed by police were racial minorities compared to their representation in the general population. The same study, however, noted that this proportion is consistent with the number of minorities arrested for serious felonies.[45] A 1977 analysis of reports from major metropolitan departments found officers fired more shots at white suspects than at black suspects, possibly because of "public sentiment concerning treatment of blacks." A 1978 report found that 60 percent of black people shot by the police were armed with hand guns, compared to 35 percent of white people shot.[46]

A 2014 study involving computer-based simulations of a police encounter using police officers and undergraduates found a greater likelihood to shoot Black targets instead of Whites for the undergraduate students but for the police they generally found no biased pattern of shooting.[47] Another study at Washington State University used realistic police simulators of different scenarios where a police officer might use deadly force. The study concluded that unarmed white suspects were three times more likely to be shot than unarmed black suspects. The study concluded that the results could be because officers were more concerned with using deadly force against black suspects for fear of how it would be perceived.[46]

Officer characteristics

McElvain & Kposowa (2008) found that white police officers were more likely to shoot on the job than either black or Hispanic officers. They also reported that male police officers were more likely to shoot than their female counterparts, and that officers with a history of shooting were more likely to shoot again than were officers without such a history.[48]


Studies have shown that administrative policies regarding police use of deadly force are associated with reduced use of such force by law enforcement officers.[49][50][51] Using less lethal weapons, such as tasers, can also significantly reduce injuries related to use-of-force events.[52]

Legal standards

In Tennessee v. Garner (1985), the Supreme Court held that "[i]t is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape," and thus the police use of deadly force against unarmed and non-dangerous suspects is in violation of the Fourth Amendment.[53] Following this decision, police departments across the United States adopted stricter policies regarding the use of deadly force, as well as providing de-escalation training to their officers.[54] A 1994 study by Dr. Abraham N. Tennenbaum, a researcher at Northwestern University, found that Garner reduced police homicides by sixteen percent since its enactment.[54] For cases where the suspect poses a threat to life, may it be the officer or another civilian, Graham v. Connor (1989) held that the use of deadly force is justified.[55] Furthermore, Graham set the 'objectively reasonableness' standard, which has been extensively utilized by law enforcement as a defense for using deadly force; the ambiguity surrounding this standard is a subject of concern because it relies on "the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene."[53] Kathryn Urbonya, a law professor at the College of William & Mary, asserts that the Supreme Court appears to have two interpretations of the term 'reasonable:' one on the basis of officers being granted qualified immunity, and the other on whether the Fourth Amendment is violated.[56] Qualified immunity, in particular, "shields an officer from suit when [he or] she makes a decision that, even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances [he or] she confronted."[53] Joanna C. Schwartz, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, found that this doctrine discourages people to file cases against officers who potentially committed misconducts; only 1% of people who have cases against law enforcement actually file suit.[57]

See also


  1. ^ Fyfe, James J. (June 1988). "Police use of deadly force: Research and reform". Justice Quarterly. 5 (2): 165–205. doi:10.1080/07418828800089691.
  2. ^ a b c Esposito, Michael; Lee, Hedwig; Edwards, Frank (2019-07-31). "Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race–ethnicity, and sex". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 116 (34): 16793–16798. doi:10.1073/pnas.1821204116. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 6708348. PMID 31383756.
  3. ^ Tony Dokoupil (January 14, 2014). "What is police brutality? Depends on where you live". NBC News.
  4. ^ "Deadly Force: Police Use of Lethal Force In The United States". Amnesty International. Retrieved 8 June 2017.
  5. ^ "US police shootings: How many die each year?". BBC News Magazine. 18 July 2016. Retrieved 8 June 2017.
  6. ^ Barber, C; Azrael, D; Cohen, A; Miller, M; Thymes, D; Wang, DE; Hemenway, D (May 2016). "Homicides by Police: Comparing Counts From the National Violent Death Reporting System, Vital Statistics, and Supplementary Homicide Reports". American Journal of Public Health. 106 (5): 922–7. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2016.303074. PMC 4985110. PMID 26985611.
  7. ^ Loftin, Colin; Wiersema, Brian; McDowall, David; Dobrin, Adam (July 2003). "Underreporting of Justifiable Homicides Committed by Police Officers in the United States, 1976–1998". American Journal of Public Health. 93 (7): 1117–1121. doi:10.2105/AJPH.93.7.1117. PMC 1447919. PMID 12835195.
  8. ^ McEwen, Tom (1996). "National Data Collection on Police Use of Force" (PDF). U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  9. ^ a b Robinson, Rashad (3 June 2015). "The US government could count those killed by police, but it's chosen not to". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 June 2015.
  10. ^ McCarthy, Tom (18 March 2015). "The uncounted: why the US can't keep track of people killed by police". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 June 2015.
  11. ^ a b c d Colin Loftin; Brian Wiersema; David McDowall & Adam Dobrin (July 2003). "Underreporting of Justifiable Homicides Committed by Police Officers in the United States, 1976–1998". Am J Public Health. 93 (7): 1117–1121. doi:10.2105/AJPH.93.7.1117. PMC 1447919. PMID 12835195.
  12. ^ Barry, Rob; Jones, Coulter (December 3, 2014). "Hundreds of Police Killings Are Unaccounted in Federal Stats". Wall Street Journal.
  13. ^ a b Roy, Roger (May 24, 2004). "Killings by Police Underreported". Orlando Sentinel.
  14. ^ "US senators call for mandatory reporting of police killings". The Guardian. 2 June 2015. Retrieved 3 June 2015.
  15. ^ Mekouar, Dora (15 May 2015). "Death Map: What's Really Killing Americans". Voice of America. Retrieved 18 May 2015.
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  17. ^ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Underlying Cause of Death 1999-2013 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released 2015. Data are from the Multiple Cause of Death Files, 1999-2013, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program. Accessed at on May 18, 2015 23:42:42 UTC
  18. ^ Burghart, D. Brian. "Fatal Encounters Official Page". Retrieved 2015-05-05.
  19. ^ Wagner, Kyle. "We're Compiling Every Police-Involved Shooting In America. Help Us". Retrieved 2015-05-03.
  20. ^ "Killed By Police: About". Retrieved 2015-05-05.
  21. ^ "Every 8 Hours, Cops kill an American Citizen". Archived from the original on 2015-05-05. Retrieved 2015-05-03.
  22. ^ Makarechi, Kia (July 14, 2016). "What the Data Really Says About Police and Racial Bias". Vanity Fair. Retrieved August 2, 2016.
  23. ^ "About The Cato Institute's National Police Misconduct Reporting Project". Retrieved 2015-05-05.
  24. ^ "Puppycide DB". Retrieved 2015-05-05.
  25. ^ Johnson, Kevin (October 15, 2008). "FBI: Justifiable homicides at highest in more than a decade". USA Today.
  26. ^ Bialik, Carl (March 6, 2015). "A New Estimate Of Killings By Police Is Way Higher — And Still Too Low". FiveThirtyEight.
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  28. ^ Sullivan, John; Hawkins, Derek (1 April 2016). "In fatal shootings by police, 1 in 5 officers' names go undisclosed". The Washington Post. Retrieved 7 July 2016.
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  31. ^ Palma, Bethania (September 22, 2016). "Do Police Kill More White People Than Black People?". Snopes. As The Post noted in a new analysis, that means black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.
  32. ^ "The Counted: people killed by the police in the US". The Guardian. Retrieved October 21, 2016.
  33. ^ Ross, Cody T.; Hills, Peter James (5 November 2015). "A Multi-Level Bayesian Analysis of Racial Bias in Police Shootings at the County-Level in the United States, 2011–2014". PLOS ONE. 10 (11): e0141854. Bibcode:2015PLoSO..1041854R. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0141854. PMC 4634878. PMID 26540108.
  34. ^ DeGue, Sarah; Fowler, Katherine A.; Calkins, Cynthia (2016). "Deaths Due to Use of Lethal Force by Law Enforcement". American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 51 (5): S173–S187. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2016.08.027. PMC 6080222. PMID 27745606.
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  38. ^ "The Bias Is Built In: How Administrative Records Mask Racially Biased Policing". SSRN 3336338. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  39. ^ Howard, Jacqueline (July 27, 2016). "Police acts of violence unbiased, controversial new data say". CNN. Retrieved December 20, 2017.
  40. ^ Jason Hanna and Madison Park. "Chicago police use excessive force, DOJ finds". CNN. Retrieved 2017-01-13.
  41. ^ Menifield, Charles E.; Shin, Geiguen; Strother, Logan (2018-06-19). "Do White Law Enforcement Officers Target Minority Suspects?". Public Administration Review. 79: 56–68. doi:10.1111/puar.12956. ISSN 0033-3352.
  42. ^ Streeter, Shea (2019-06-07). "Lethal Force in Black and White: Assessing Racial Disparities in the Circumstances of Police Killings". The Journal of Politics. 81 (3): 1124–1132. doi:10.1086/703541. ISSN 0022-3816.
  43. ^ Cesario, Joseph; Taylor, Carley; Burkel, Nicole; Tress, Trevor; Johnson, David J. (2019-07-17). "Officer characteristics and racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 116 (32): 15877–15882. doi:10.1073/pnas.1903856116. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 6689929. PMID 31332014.
  44. ^ Knox, Dean; Mummolo, Jonathan (2020-01-21). "Making inferences about racial disparities in police violence". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 117 (3): 1261–1262. doi:10.1073/pnas.1919418117. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 6983428. PMID 31964781.
  45. ^ Milton, C.H.; et al. (1977). "Police Use of Deadly Force". Police Foundation. Retrieved 8 June 2017.
  46. ^ a b Jackman, Tom (April 27, 2016). "This study found race matters in police shootings, but the results may surprise you". Washington Post. Retrieved November 16, 2017.
  47. ^ Correll, Joshua; Hudson, Sean M.; Guillermo, Steffanie; Ma, Debbie S. (2014-05-01). "The Police Officer's Dilemma: A Decade of Research on Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot". Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 8 (5): 201–213. doi:10.1111/spc3.12099. ISSN 1751-9004.
  48. ^ McElvain, James P.; Kposowa, Augustine J. (April 2008). "Police Officer Characteristics and the Likelihood of Using Deadly Force". Criminal Justice and Behavior. 35 (4): 505–521. doi:10.1177/0093854807313995.
  49. ^ Fyfe, James J. (December 1979). "Administrative interventions on police shooting discretion: An empirical examination". Journal of Criminal Justice. 7 (4): 309–323. doi:10.1016/0047-2352(79)90065-5.
  50. ^ Terrill, William; Paoline, Eugene A. (4 March 2016). "Police Use of Less Lethal Force: Does Administrative Policy Matter?". Justice Quarterly. 34 (2): 193–216. doi:10.1080/07418825.2016.1147593. Fyfe’s early work demonstrated the effect that restrictive lethal force policies can have, which helped stimulate a national shift in policy and legal development. Along with Fyfe, scholars such as Gellar and Scott, Walker, and White offered further support for the impact of administrative policy on lethal force.
  51. ^ White, M. D. (1 January 2001). "Controlling Police Decisions to Use Deadly Force: Reexamining the Importance of Administrative Policy". Crime & Delinquency. 47 (1): 131–151. doi:10.1177/0011128701047001006.
  52. ^ MacDonald, John M.; Kaminski, Robert J.; Smith, Michael R. (December 2009). "The Effect of Less-Lethal Weapons on Injuries in Police Use-of-Force Events". American Journal of Public Health. 99 (12): 2268–2274. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2009.159616. PMC 2775771. PMID 19846686.
  53. ^ a b c Kyle J. Jacob, From Garner to Graham and Beyond: Police Liability for Use of Deadly Force — Ferguson Case Study, 91 Chi.-Kent. L. Rev. 325 (2016).
  54. ^ a b Tennenbaum, Abraham (Summer 1994). "The Influence of the Garner Decision on Police Use of Deadly Force". Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. 85: 241–260.
  55. ^ Sherman, Lawrence (January 2018). "Reducing Fatal Police Shootings as System Crashes: Research, Theory, and Practice". Annual Review of Criminology. 1: 421–449.
  56. ^ Urbonya, Kathryn R., "Problematic Standards of Reasonableness: Qualified Immunity in Section 1983 Actions for a Police Officer's Use of Excessive Force" (1989). College of William and Mary Law School.
  57. ^ Schwartz, Joanna (October 2017). "How Qualified Immunity Fails". Yale Law Journal. 127: 2–76.
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