Journalists Dig into the Actual Police-Shooting Numbers

Some serious journalists are counting people shot and killed by police and police who are murdered by people they are sworn to protect and serve.

Some serious journalists are counting people shot and killed by police and police who are murdered by people they are sworn to protect and serve.

We’ve seen both in Cincinnati this year. Officer Sonny Kim was assassinated by Trepierre Hummons. Other officers shot and killed Hummons. Unarmed Samuel DuBose was shot and killed by UC police officer Ray Tensing. Tensing faces murder charges. 

Body counts by reporters — the kind of explanatory journalism that goes beyond inflammatory incidents — promotes fact-based public policy in the absence of reliable government statistics. 

Police may use deadly force only when they fear for their lives or the lives of others. (I’m using police as shorthand. It includes all law enforcement officers.)

The question is whether and when police violence becomes excessive. Comprehensive national reporting by London’s The Guardian and the The Washington Post found that police are shooting and killing more than two people a day.

That’s almost twice the rate official federal statistics report. 

And a subtext is race. Blacks and Hispanics are killed out of their proportion of the general population. So are young men. 

Post and Guardian survey methods differ, but their preliminary 2015 totals are similar. Supporting the numbers are 

brief descriptions of most lethal encounters through mid-September.  

The Post said, “Of the 703 people who have been shot and killed by officers in 2015, the vast majority have been armed with either a gun or other potentially deadly weapon. At least 65 of those shot and killed were unarmed.”

The Guardian’s project, “The Counted,” tallied more than 836 killed by police, including 762 by gunshot. 

More blacks were victims than whites and Hispanics together in the Guardian survey; the Post found near parity in raw numbers.

Meanwhile, there is no serious effort to create a national database requiring authorities to report when anyone dies from police violence.

The Guardian and Post drew on flawed public records, newspaper reports and other incomplete reports of shootings by police. The Post also relied on staff interviews. 

The Post database ignores killings by other means, such as stun guns and deaths in police custody. The Guardian is more comprehensive, counting all known deaths at the hands of police.

The Post said its count was more than twice the annual rate of fatal police shootings tallied by the federal government over the past decade — a count that officials concede is incomplete.

“These shootings are grossly underreported,” Jim Bueermann told the Post. “We are never going to reduce the number of police shootings if we don’t begin to accurately track this information.”

Bueermann is a former police chief and president of the Washington-based Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving law enforcement.

Demographics was destiny. The Post said among unarmed victims, two-thirds were black or Hispanic. Overall, blacks were killed at three times the rate of whites or other minorities when adjusting by the population of the census tracts where the shootings occurred. Other Post findings included:

• More than 80 percent killed by police were armed with potentially lethal objects, primarily guns, but also knives, machetes, revving vehicles and, in one case, a nail gun. 

• Forty-nine had no weapon. Guns wielded by 13 others were toys. In all, 16 percent carried a toy or were unarmed.

• About half of the shootings came when police responded to people seeking help with domestic disturbances and other complex social situations: a homeless person behaving erratically; a boyfriend threatening violence; a son trying to kill himself.  

• Nearly a quarter of those killed were identified by police or family members as mentally ill.

• The other half of fatal shootings involved non-domestic crimes, such as robberies, or the routine duties that occupy patrol officers, such as serving warrants.

• Dozens died fleeing police, including 20 percent of those who were unarmed. Police experts say there is a name for the injury officers inflict on suspects afterward: “foot tax.” In three 2015 cases in which charges were filed against police, videos showed the officers shooting a suspect during or after a foot chase. 

• An earlier Post survey found that of thousands of fatal police shootings over the past decade, 54 produced criminal  charges. Typically, those cases involved layers of damning evidence challenging the officer’s account. Of the cases resolved, most officers were cleared or acquitted.

The Guardian — the London daily that won a Pulitzer for its coverage of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks — said more blacks were killed than whites and Hispanics combined.

It also offered snapshots of the circumstances leading to the killings and a handy breakout by state, gender, age, race/ethnicity, cause and whether armed. It also allows a search by a victim’s name. 

A major difference is The Guardian's use of crowdsourcing. Here’s what The Guardian website says: 

“The Counted is a project by The Guardian — and you — working to count the number of people killed by police and other law enforcement agencies in the United States throughout 2015, to monitor their demographics and to tell the stories of how they died.

“The database will combine Guardian reporting with verified crowdsourced information… The Counted is the most thorough public accounting for deadly use of force in the U.S., but it will operate as an imperfect work in progress — and will be updated by Guardian reporters and interactive journalists as frequently and as promptly as possible.

“Contributions of any information that may improve the quality of our data will be greatly welcomed as we work from a dearth of available information toward better accountability. Please contact us to pass on tips, links and multimedia as well as new information on existing cases already recorded …”

Coincidentally, NPR counted retaliatory fatal shootings of police this year and found “the notion of growing ‘warfare’ against police stems in part from a statistical increase in the number of law officers murdered.”

In 2014, the year of the Ferguson protests and increased media attention on police violence, 51 officers were killed nationwide. NPR said that was a jump from the 27 killed in 2013, and many took it as a sign of greater danger for police.

Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and an assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina, told NPR that interpretation was “nonsense.” “It's misleading to compare one year to another year,” he said. Stoughton has been analyzing decades of data and says 2014 looked bad in comparison with 2013 mainly because 2013 was so good.

"2013 was the safest year for police officers, ever," he told NPR. "The safest year in recorded history."

Otherwise, NPR said, 2014 looked pretty normal. The number of murders of police was about the same as 2012, and actually a lot lower than 2011. 

The long-term trend is even more encouraging, according to Stoughton data. On average, about half as many police are murdered every year now, as compared with the 1970s.

Curmudgeon Notes: 

• Am I the only non-Catholic who quickly tires of the news media — as opposed to Catholic media — calling Pope Francis “holy father” or “his holiness?” Both titles reflect a belief that many if not most Americans do not share: The Roman pope is the vicar of Christ with authority over all Christians.

And I won’t even get into the millions of Americans who don’t accept even the premise that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, promised in Hebrew Scripture. 

Mainstream print media and broadcasters appear to use “holy father” or “his holiness” to avoid repeating “the pope.” It gets trickier when reporters refer to Francis as “the pontiff.” There are other pontiffs and popes in Christendom. It would be correct to call him the “Roman pontiff” or “bishop of Rome.” But what’s wrong with “pope”?

Business Courier did a cover story/two-page inside spread on money issues coming before Cincinnati voters. It should have been labeled “Editorial.” The weekly showed its colors in the sidebar/box on the plan to embed a perpetual tax in the city charter for the parks. No critics/opponents are noted. Only “leading supporters” are identified.

• Compare the Business Courier’s puff piece on the parks levy to the balanced presentation in the Sept. 25 The Cincinnati Enquirer. Among other things, The Enquirer identifies leading critics of the proposed levy. Its reporting also makes clear that the plan all but excludes public participation in decisions, minimizes public oversight on spending and renews the mayor’s promise to cut down “creepy” Burnet Woods trees to make room for more pavement. 

• Ohio news media apparently missed a huge story in Wilmington: The racist targeting of a Chinese-American National Weather Service hydrologist and failing coverup.

I read it in The New York Times. Briefly, when investigating federal agents couldn’t find evidence of espionage, they arrested Sherry Chen on lesser charges. When the Justice Department dropped those charges, the weather service decided to fire her anyway.

“Last December,” the Times said, “federal agents arrested Mrs. Chen and accused her of illegally accessing a federal dam database on behalf of foreign interests in China. However, the investigation found that Mrs. Chen had only shared information from publicly available websites with a former college classmate, now China’s vice water minister, who asked her how reservoir projects are funded in the United States.

“In her search to answer his question, Mrs. Chen asked supervisors for relevant data and at one point searched the National Inventory of Dams’ password-protected website, using a password provided by a colleague. Mrs. Chen never found any information relevant to her classmate’s query, but did download information that was relevant to her work forecasting flooding along the Ohio River, which she never used or shared.”

The Times said the coworker made the password available “to everyone in the office and even mailed to Mrs. Chen…” That colleague was not disciplined or prosecuted.

It goes on, the Times said, including a new allegation that Mrs. Chen “demonstrated untrustworthiness” when she “secretly provided internal NWS data to a member of the general public.” 

• Coincidentally, separate charges were dropped against Xiaoxing Xi, Chinese-American physicist at Temple University, with more red faces; technologically challenged agents accused him of something that didn’t happen. 

• Conservative commentator Ann Coulter was so riled by GOP presidential aspirants using the latest debate to assert their support for Israel that she tweeted:

“How many fucking Jews do these people (candidates) think there are in the United States?” 

Whatever her intention, her tweet reminded many Americans of the canard that Jews have hidden power over politicians and public policy. Critics accused her of antisemitism; fans tweeted their agreement.  

Coulter says she was criticizing the Republicans sucking up to those “fucking Jews” and not the “fucking Jews” themselves, their political donations or their votes. 

She told thedailybeast.com, “I’m accusing Republicans of thinking the Jews have so much power. They’re the ones who are comedically acting out this play where Jews control everything.”

Coulter didn’t persuade conservative publisher Binyamin Jolkovsky, who has carried her column in his online Jewish World Review for more than a decade.

“She could have been drunk, she could have been high, I don't know, I have to give her the benefit of the doubt … but I don't have to delude myself,” Jolkovsky told The Daily Beast. “Pandering to Jewish money is about as anti-Semitic a stereotype as you could put forth. Her ‘eff-ing Jews’ comment is not identifying Israel — it’s identifying Jews, plural, and all Jews. There is no excuse for that. You can't just wiggle out of something that vile and hateful.”

It wasn’t clear whether he’d drop her column. She’s still on the masthead as one of the Review’s columnists. 

Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine, is under fire again. Critics don’t get it, thedailybeast.com

said. “Satire is, by definition, offensive. It is meant to make us feel uncomfortable. It is meant to make us scratch our heads, think, do a double-take and then think again. It is supposed to take our prejudices, turn them upside down, reapply them, and make us think we’re seeing something we’re not, until we stop to question ourselves.”

Satire needn’t make us laugh, or, as thedailybeast.com

added, “Offense is not given. It is taken.” 

The magazine used the image of the dead Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, in two two cartoons. “The first features the face-down image of Aylan next to a McDonald’s happy meal sign, and the other features Jesus walking on water next to a caption stating that while Christians float, Muslims drown.”

Charlie Hebdo is not racist, thedailybeast.com

said. It is “a

campaigning anti-racist

left-wing magazine. And its cartoons, that are so often misunderstood to be promoting racism, are in fact lampooning racism. 

Hebdo is no more racist a magazine than that bastion of liberal media The New Yorker was when it depicted Obama dressed as a Muslim

, fist-bumping his angry black-revolutionary wife Michelle. As the editor for The New Yorker unfortunately had to subsequently explain, his cover was lampooning the right-wing prejudices and smears that had risen against the Obamas, not endorsing them.” 

• NPR and Politico continue their digging into the scandal-rotten American Red Cross. Given what they and others have reported for more than a decade, I don’t know why some federal prosecutor hasn’t measured that congressionally chartered national organization against criteria for Continuing Criminal Enterprise or Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act. 

Here’s the latest from ProPublica, the nonpartisan news site:

“Federal legislation is being unveiled … that would force the American Red Cross to do something that it has repeatedly resisted

: open its books and operations to outside scrutiny.

"The proposed American Red Cross Sunshine Act

comes in response to a government (GAO) report … that finds oversight of the charity lacking and recommends Congress find a way to fill the gap.”

It said the 18-month GAO examination was requested by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who also authored the proposed legislation. The bill would require regular government audits of the Red Cross’ finances, its response to disasters in the United States and its work abroad.

And ProPublica quoted Thompson, saying, “The public deserves and needs to know that money is going for which it is intended.” In part, Thompson cited Red Cross responses after Hurricane Katrina

, the earthquake in

Haiti

and

Superstorm Sandy

.

The Red Cross did not cooperate fully with the GAO inquiry, Thompson said, which the GAO confirmed. 

“When you get pushback from the very beginning it creates doubts and suspicion in the minds of a lot of us,” Thompson added. 

The GAO cited reporting by ProPublica and NPR about the Red Cross’ failures during Superstorm Sandy

and

misleading

statements by CEO Gail McGovern about how the group has spent hundreds of millions of donated dollars. 

And as NPR and ProPublica reported, Red Cross CEO McGovern “tried unsuccessfully

to get Thompson to shut down the inquiry by the GAO, which is the investigative arm of Congress. Thompson said that McGovern’s request was the first of its kind he’d gotten in over 20 years in Congress.

“In response to the pushback, Thompson added language to his bill saying the GAO can have access to any Red Cross records, including those related to the group’s ‘financial transactions and internal governance.’ ”

The Red Cross didn’t reply to NPR/ProPublica, but it reportedly told GAO that it is not a federal agency and it “believes there are several already existing mechanisms in place to evaluate our disaster response that provide considerable oversight.” The Red Cross said that “oversight” comes from its ombudsman office, its board of directors and regular after-action reviews.

• Remember eye-tearing and breath-taking smog that used to blanket the Tristate before EPA forced refiners and auto makers to comply with “clean air” standards? Remember vehicle emission tests and, for many, expensive repairs to their engines and/or exhaust systems? 

That’s why I hope the news media will rethink their formulaic “no one was injured” tag lines on stories about VW cheating on diesel emission controls. What comes out of the dirtier tailpipes is a health hazard. 

Nitrogen oxides (NOx) contributes to the creation of smog when the sun is out and weather is warm. Smog hurts. It can be dangerous to the very young, the very old and others with weakened health. 

That’s not the worst. Tiny soot particles in diesel exhaust lodge deep in lungs and have been implicated in cancer. 

Granted, total pollution from dirty VW diesel engines is a tiny fraction of what  some Metro buses and large trucks emit, but it’s hardly harmless. 

The news media misses that point in their ignorance or clueless shorthand. 

• And I’m still waiting for some reporter to tell me what happens if owners ignore the eventual VW recall and drive dirtier diesels with the mileage and power for which they paid so much extra. 


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]