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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Key Facts From Police-Involved Shootings Over The Last Year

We've done a lot of writing and reporting at Code Switch over the last year on deadly police shootings of unarmed black people, cases that have become such a part of our landscape that they have a tendency to melt into each other. Indeed, sometimes the pattern of facts seems to barely change: Just last fall, we followed the story of another unarmed black man in South Carolina who was shot following a police traffic stop. The officer in that shooting, like Slager, was later fired and arrested once the video of that encounter surfaced and contradicted his initial report.

While names and places change, the backdrop against which these stories play out does not. We decided to pull together what we've learned along the way, along with some thoughtful commentary from other outlets about this case and the larger questions it raises.

What Video Shows — And Doesn't Show

So, are these ugly encounters between police and civilians becoming more common, or is technology simply making them easier to capture? It's surprisingly difficult to tell —there's no comprehensive national database on either police use of force or on police-related deaths. The Justice Department can ask the thousands of police agencies across the country to share their numbers, but it can't compel them to do so. And since those agencies often have their own definitions of what constitutes use of force, it's hard to make useful comparisons.

From 2003 to 2009, the Justice Department found that 4,813 people died while a member of law enforcement was trying to arrest or restrain them, or shortly thereafter. How you look at those (again, imperfect) numbers is largely a matter of framing, as we've previously reported:
"If you're looking at the universe of all arrests, it feels like arrest-related deaths are exceedingly rare. The report noted that those 4,800 arrest-related deaths came during a period in which the FBI estimated that there were nearly 98 million arrests made nationally. That's .005 percent of all arrests, some of which will be deemed justifiable homicides.

"But if you consider these numbers simply as a tally of arrest-related deaths by themselves, it happens frequently enough that any such case might make a headline every single day. A measure compiled by Colorlines and the Chicago Reporter in 2007 found that nearly 9,500 people across the country were shot by the police between 1980 and 2005 — 'an average of nearly one fatal shooting per day.' "


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