Police-Shooting Stats and the Media

While federal officials dithered, The Washington Post and U.S. staff of London’s daily Guardian

While federal officials dithered, The Washington Post and U.S. staff of London’s daily Guardian compiled lists of Americans killed by law enforcement last year. 

It was slogging journalism at its best: searching for sources, following up leads, digging out death reports and circumstances, using interviews to double-check everything.

I’ve written about this before. Here are the final numbers. It’s worth repeating: watchdog at its most vigilant. 

The Guardian calls its project The Counted: 1,134 black men killed or died in other police encounters last year. The Post counted 986 individuals of all races who were shot and killed by police. It excluded other causes of death in police encounters. 

This is the second time the Post and online Guardian US captured the same national story independently. They shared the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their coverage of Edward Snowden’s leaks and NSA surveillance.  

Embarrassed federal officials are trying to figure out how to produce accurate counts of deaths at the hands of police (using that term for local police, sheriff’s deputies, highway patrols, etc.).  

The stumbling block is obvious: Police needn’t report deaths in their custody to any federal agency. 

Both papers had about double the FBI’s number of documented deaths at the hands of, or in the hands of, police. 

What’s not clear from federal responses is why feds hadn’t allocated staff and resources to do what a daily paper and online publication achieved with far fewer people and budgets.   

As The Post put it, “The FBI and the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics now acknowledge that their data collection has been deeply flawed. FBI Director James B. Comey called his agency’s database ‘unacceptable.’ Both agencies have launched efforts to create new systems for documenting fatalities.”

Or they could subscribe to the Guardian and Post, which said they’d do the same or similar counts this year. 

My guess? We’ll have Guardian and Post 2016 statistics before feds do.

The Guardian included crowd sourcing for killings that didn’t make the news outside of communities where they happened. The Post relied primarily on news stories and public records. Both followed up leads with reporting/interviews.

The Guardian included all causes, including shooting. The  Post counted only fatal shootings.  

Both started counting when national attention turned to police shootings of young black men after Michael Brown was killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.  

“Young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers,” the Guardian found. “Despite making up only 2 percent of the total U.S. population, African-American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15 percent of all deaths logged this year by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police. 

“Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age. Paired with official government mortality data, this new finding indicates that about one in every 65 deaths of a young African American man in the U.S. is a killing by police.”

In all, the Guardian reported, “89 percent of deaths by police in 2015 were caused by gunshot, 4 percent were Taser-related, 4 percent were deaths in custody following physical confrontations and 3 percent were deaths of people struck by police officers driving vehicles.”

The Counted found a “wide range of situations encountered by police officers. … Of the 1,134 people killed, about one in five were unarmed but another one in five fired shots of their own at officers before being killed. 

“At least six innocent bystanders were killed by officers during violent incidents; eight police officers were killed by people who subsequently died and appeared in the database. More than 21 percent of deadly incidents began with a complaint to police alleging domestic violence or some other domestic disturbance. 

“About 16 percent arose from officers attempting to arrest a wanted person, execute a warrant or apprehend a fugitive,” the Guardian continued.

“Another 14 percent of killings followed an attempted traffic or street stop, 13 percent came after someone committed a violent crime and 7 percent after a non-violent crime. 

“In addition to those killed after opening fire, 160 people were accused of refusing commands to drop a weapon. Another 157 were said to have pointed or leveled a gun or non-lethal gun at officers. 

“Police alleged that 158 people killed had ‘charged,’ advanced at or fought with officers. And while 79 people were killed after allegedly ‘reaching for their waistband’ or grabbing for a weapon, 44 attacked officers, some with knives and blades.”

The Post “found that the kind of incidents that have ignited protests in many U.S. communities — most often, white police officers killing unarmed black men — represent less than 4 percent of fatal police shootings. 

“The great majority of people who died at the hands of the police …  were wielding weapons, they were suicidal or mentally troubled, or they ran when officers told them to halt.”

The Post said that black men make up 6 percent of the U.S. population but “they account for 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police.” 

However, “in the majority of cases in which police shot and killed a person who had attacked someone with a weapon or brandished a gun, the person who was shot was white. But a hugely disproportionate number — 3 in 5 — of those killed after exhibiting less threatening behavior were black or Hispanic.” 

The Post “tracked more than a dozen details about each killing, including the events that led to the fatal encounter, whether the slain person was armed and demographic data on each person. 

The Post will continue tracking fatal shootings by police in 2016.

“The research also noted whether victims were mentally ill or experiencing an emotional crisis, a category that came to account for one-quarter of those killed. Officers fatally shot at least 243 people with mental health problems: 75 who were explicitly suicidal and 168 for whom police or family members confirmed a history of mental illness.

“The analysis found that about 9 in 10 of the mentally troubled people were armed, usually with guns but also with knives or other sharp objects. But the analysis also found that most of them died at the hands of police officers who had not been trained to deal with the mentally ill.”

This isn’t a case of liberal papers going after cops; it’s a classic example of watchdog journalism: reporters holding authorities to account and forcing feds to say they’re looking for ways to do better.

Curmudgeon notes:

• If you missed Jack Greiner’s recent local column in the Enquirer, check out here. His immediate subject is online rants and libel. The more important point is one he makes forcefully and needs constant repetition:

There is no such thing as a false opinion but courts can test defamatory claims for truth or falsity, even when those “facts” are embedded into protected opinion. 

The case about which Greiner writes involved an unhappy spouse in a divorce whose online rant accused her attorney of charging four times the agreed fee. 

The attorney sued. He and proved that her online rant was defamatory and false. She lost the libel judgment.

• My old paper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, quoted University of Minnesota mathematician and killjoy Doug Arnold on the 292.2 million possible combinations of the five numbers and Powerball. “If you analyze it enough, it’s not so much fun,” Arnold explained. “You’ll pay your $2 and it’s guaranteed that you will have nothing.

• There’s a Facebook video of a baby dying of whooping cough. It was posted by the child’s parents to promote vaccination. Had she known she could be vaccinated during pregnancy, her son might have escaped the killer disease. He was too young at one month to be vaccinated himself. 

Rolling Stone’s disgrace deepened as we learned the facts behind its botched story of a false gang rape at the University of Virginia. It seems that the freshman woman whose allegations were central to the larger theme of campus “rape culture” made it all up in a failed attempt to win the affection of classmate Ryan Duffin. 

Duffin is blameless. He befriended the woman, Jackie, but didn’t reciprocate her ardor. That left him a bystander to her allegations of gang rape at a fraternity house and to the incompetent reporting and editing at Rolling Stone

As Duffin recently told the Washington Post, “Had any of us been contacted it never would have blown up like this.” Duffin said that he and two others who met with Jackie the night of the alleged attack were not interviewed prior to the story running. 

“It’s weird to think that an entire portion of my life was consumed by these events that looking back looks so dumb,” he told the Post. “Given the way everything’s turned out, I don’t think that’s the way I want to describe it, but I had a lot of naiveté three years ago. It’s just weird all around.”

• At least Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone interview with Mexican drug lord El Chapo was the real thing. So what? 

We learned nothing of value other than the depreciated term, “scoop,” and that El Chapo didn’t know who Penn was but El Chapo wanted to meet the Mexican actress who set up the interview. 

And, of course, authorities on both sides of the border knew what was going down. They tracked Penn and arrested El Chapo. 

Last week, Penn said the interview failed to achieve his goal — to start a conversation about the war on drugs.

Instead, the interview was derided because Penn and Rolling Stone giving El Chapo total control over pre-publication contents. 

Enquirer’s Dan Horn reports that the national question of Cruz’s presidential eligibility was raised with the Hamilton County Board of Elections. It’s whether Cruz is a “natural born citizen” under Article II of the U.S. Constitution. Here’s the gist of Dan’s story:

“Bill Sloat, a longtime Cincinnati resident and former newspaper reporter, said in a letter to the board that state and local officials should make every effort to validate Cruz's candidacy before Ohio voters cast ballots in the March 15 primary.”

Sloat wrote that "there appears to be an open question about Sen. Cruz's qualifications for the presidency. It certainly appears irresponsible for the board to issue ballots with such an important issue unsettled.” Sloat told Horn that “he doesn't have a political ax to grind and personally thinks Cruz, who was born in Canada, should be deemed eligible. He said he just wants clarity before the election.” 

Board of elections members said they'll talk about Sloat’s request, but they aren't optimistic they will be able to settle an issue that has been popping up in American elections for decades.

• Cruz was born in Canada to an American mother. 

Obama was born to an American mother in Hawaii (which, unlike Canada, was and remains part of the United States when Obama was born there.) 

None of this came up when Mexican-born George Romney sought the GOP nomination in the Middle Ages or John McCain, born in the Panama Canal Zone, ran for president in 2008.  

• I hope wingnuts don’t try to disqualify presidential aspirants born surgically by Caesarian section... which is anything but “natural.”

• Assessing Cruz’s actions and campaign speeches, NYTimes columnist David Brooks invokes the false contrast of loving Christianity and legalistic Judaism.

That defamatory trope — drawn from Christian Scripture and tradition —remains part of American culture. Here’s part of what he writes: 

“ . . . (I)n his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace.” And in a case from his years as Texas attorney Cruz “is almost the dictionary definition of pharisaism: an overzealous application of the letter of the law in a way that violates the spirit of the law, as well as fairness and mercy.”

So much for the Pharisees, ancient Jews whose faith and fidelity over two millennia evolved into modern Judaism. 

• The next time NPR says it takes money from Lumosity, ask why. The Federal Trade Commission says the brain games didn’t live up to their hype. 

Reuters said Lumosity agreed to refund $2 million to settle allegations that it made unfounded claims that its games reduce or delay intellectual impairment that comes with age. 

“Lumosity preyed on consumers' fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia and even Alzheimer's disease," said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads."

Lumosity apps, advertised on National Public Radio, CNN, Fox News, Pandora and others, cost $14.95 per month, the agency said. Lumosity said the FTC's complaint was "a reflection of marketing language that has been discontinued."

• TV’s Al Jezeera America (AJAM) is shutting down. Owned by the Gulf  emirate of Qatar, it never caught on with U.S. cable companies, advertisers or audiences. Al Jazeera online sites appeared unaffected. AJAM management said the cable channel’s economics were unsustainable. My guess is that it was an unacceptable luxury in an era of plummeting oil revenues. 

• H. F. Lenfest made his money in cable TV and owned the Philadelphia Daily News, the Philadelphia Inquirer and philly.com. He’s giving all three to a new nonprofit foundation in hopes it could provide a successful business model. The new Institute for Journalism in New Media was created at Lenfest’s request to run the papers. 

• Victims of telephone hacking by Rupert Murdoch’s journalists in London are accusing his tabloid daily Sun of criminal eavesdropping on voice mails. 

The latest claims implicate Rebekah Brooks who was acquitted in an earlier hacking prosecutions for her leadership at Murdoch’s since-closed Sunday News of the World. Her new accusers say hacking was “endemic” when she edited the Sun

She resigned as CEO of Murdoch’s UK operations after her trial but he reappointed her as chief executive of News UK last year. Murdoch’s UK lawyers deny any hacking at the Sun

• Rather than argue with Obama’s State of the Union Message, Fox News contributor Andrea Tantaros belittled the president’s tears as he spoke of young gun victims. "I would check the podium for a raw onion or some No More Tears [a baby shampoo]," she said. "I mean. it’s not really believable. It is awards season after all.”


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]