Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Alton Sterling.
These names are probably familiar to most, if not all, of us.
In the last few years, Americans have watched as more and more deadly altercations with law enforcement – often involving unarmed black men – have been featured on the news.
Are fatal law enforcement encounters on the rise? Or are we just more aware of these encounters because of media coverage?
One organization that collects data on deadly altercations with law enforcement is FatalEncounters.org, which has a database of over 15,000 incident reports from 2000 to 2017. Of the reports, website founder D. Brian Burghart says, “We’re about 78 percent of the way to the total of what we think will be about 20,784 total records at the end of 2016 or early 2017.”
To observe the last few years of fatal law enforcement encounters, we collected its 2013-2017 data and visualized them. Here’s what we learned.
Spikes in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters
Experts may believe that shootings aren’t on the rise and that media coverage is, but the data tell a different story. Map nearly four years of fatal law enforcement encounters, and you’ll find sharp spikes in fatalities.
Some might argue these declining numbers make police violence unnecessary and even criminal. Some might call for fewer police on the streets and more community members keeping the peace. Still, others may feel that police violence is part of what’s keeping crime in check. In one recent survey, 70 percent of respondents said, “The level of crime in low-income inner city communities is a bigger problem in America today than police discrimination against minorities.”
States With the Greatest Number of Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters
The states and territory that had the greatest number of fatal law enforcement encounters per the 2013-2017 data were New Mexico (5.08 deaths per 100,000 residents), Oklahoma (4.09 deaths), the District of Columbia (4.02 deaths), and Arizona (3.51 deaths).
While every state in the U.S. had deadly encounters with law enforcement during this time, Rhode Island (0.47 deaths), New York (0.76 deaths), Massachusetts (0.93 deaths), and New Jersey (0.97 deaths) had the fewest deaths per 100,000 residents.
Race, Ethnicity, and Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters
From 2013 to 2017, almost 48 percent of people killed by law enforcement were white, while over 30 percent were black, and 18 percent were Hispanic. These percentages account for all armed and unarmed persons killed in law enforcement interactions. However, these numbers only account for the cases in which race or ethnicity of the victim was reported.
Causes of Death
The U.S. is a world leader in gun deaths, and its police forces are heavily armed, so it may come as no surprise that 72 percent of deaths related to altercations with law enforcement were caused by gunshots.
Additionally, just over 20 percent of deaths in fatal law enforcement encounters were vehicle-related, while nearly 3 percent of deaths were caused via Taser – a weapon that isn’t supposed to be fatal.
Age and Gender in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters
Most people killed in law enforcement altercations were aged 20 to 29 years old (over 30 percent), while 27 percent of people in fatal police encounters were aged 30 to 39 years old.
Over 91 percent were men, and nearly 9 percent were women.
Fatal Law Enforcement Encounter Rulings
How did these fatal law enforcement encounters end? How many were found to be justified – and how many were not?
The answer is that many cases (36 percent) are still pending. 3 percent of cases found the death to be criminal, nearly 39 percent remain unknown or unreported, and nearly 11 percent of fatal law enforcement encounters were deemed to be justified.
Mental Illness and Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters
Mental illness is often to blame for mass shootings in the U.S., as many believe mental illness – when left untreated – can cause breakdowns and fits of anger strong enough to cause irrevocable harm. In fact, “fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness.”
“Our research finds that across the board, the mentally ill are 60 to 120 percent more likely than the average person to be the victims of violent crime rather than the perpetrators.”
What happens, then, when people with mental health issues come in contact with law enforcement?
According to data from January 2013 to February 2017, law enforcement was aware of an altered state of mental health (the person was suicidal, for instance) in 15 percent of fatal law enforcement encounters involving a person deemed mentally ill by an officer, family member, or another involved person. Of the deaths involving a person believed to have a mental health or substance abuse issue, over 89 percent were killed by gunfire. While some encounters involved additional weapons, many victims with reported mental health issues were unarmed at the time of their death.
Death Toll Remains High in 2017
If January and February of 2017 is any indication of the year ahead, fatal law enforcement encounters may continue to be prevalent in the U.S. – and are on track to outpace those of previous years. According to the data, there were 168 reported deaths from Jan. 1-31, 2017 (six of which were on New Year’s Day), and 132 reported deaths from Feb. 1-28, 2017.
Nearly 82 percent of these deaths involved a gunshot wound, while nearly 15 percent involved a vehicle. Another 4 percent of deaths involved a Taser, asphyxiation, or restraint.
From the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man having car trouble to the death of a convicted felon who injured three Chicago officers, the data show that fatal law enforcement encounters are rising year-over-year – despite the fact that crime has been on the general decline since 1996.
The truth is that these data raise some big questions. How do we define or justify the need for deadly police force? What preventative measures can be taken when handling situations involving a person with a suspected mental health or substance abuse issue?
We used data from FatalEncounters.org, which are from Jan. 1, 2013, to February 28, 2017. Data were collected on March 3, 2017, so incidents from the original database may have been added or redefined since.
To determine deadly law enforcement encounter rates per 100,000 residents for states, we used population data from the U.S. Census.
FatalEncounters.org states, “We consider the years 2013, 2014 and 2015 complete, although sometimes incidents that weren’t previously reported in the media (or that we missed) crop up because of lawsuits or other reasons. Government data also suggests that vehicular deaths are often not reported in news media, so our data may understate that total. We don’t suggest national analysis outside the three complete years, and there are several data points that we know are too poorly reported in the media to result in accurate results for analysis: race, disposition, and mental state.”
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