Killings by police that unleashed a new protest movement around the US in 2014, including those of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and John Crawford, are missing from the federal government’s official record of homicides by officers because most departments refuse to submit data.
Only 224 of 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the US reported a fatal shooting by their officers to the FBI last year, according to previously unpublished data obtained by the Guardian, which sheds new light on flaws in official systems for counting the use of deadly force by police.
The Counted , an investigation by the Guardian to report all deaths caused by police in 2015, had already logged deadly shootings by officers from 224 different law enforcement agencies by 10 April this year. Crowd-sourced counts in 2014 recorded deaths at a similar higher rate.
Stephen Fischer, a spokesman for the FBI, said exclusions were inevitable because the program remained voluntary. “We have no way of knowing how many incidents may have been omitted,” Fischer said in an email.
Amid mounting pressure on public authorities to overhaul the recording of deadly incidents involving law enforcement, an extensive review of all data on “justifiable homicides” by police collected by the FBI from police departments between 2004 and 2014 found:
- No police departments from the state of Florida reported any homicides by officers, meaning deaths caused by police in the country’s third-most populous state were not logged by the FBI. The New York police department, by far the country’s biggest, submitted data for just one year during the past decade.
- The FBI records only basic personal details of each person killed and not information such as whether they were armed with a weapon – a critical factor in ongoing debates over the use of force by police around the country.
- A chaotic approach was applied to recording other high-profile deaths over recent years. Some were logged, some filed to a separate category with general homicides without noting the subjects were killed by police, and others were ignored.
- An increase in the number of homicides by police publicly reported by the FBI over the past five years was effectively matched by a rise in the number of individual departments reporting any homicides, casting doubt over purported trends in the data.
- Details of other controversial deaths that prompted protests were entered incorrectly in the FBI database, damaging government efforts to monitor demographic information about people killed by police.
The analysis of raw FBI data was carried out as the US Department of Justice announced it was trialling a new open-source system for counting homicides by law enforcement. The system’s methodology closely resembles those of The Counted and a Washington Post record of fatal police shootings.
News of the pilot program, which is being run by the department’s bureau of justice statistics, came following strident comments from both US attorney general Loretta Lynch and FBI director James Comey, who reiterated calls for better official records of homicides by police .
Comprehensive records of killings by law enforcement officers has been a demand of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has risen to prominence since the fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, of Michael Brown in August 2014. It was also among the recommendations made by Barack Obama’s White House policing taskforce, which was convened following Brown’s death, which was among those recorded in the FBI database.
While the people killed were not named in the FBI database, some could be identified by matching entries with publicly-available information on their age, sex and race, as well as those of the officer who shot them, the location of the incident, and the month it occurred.
But the death in July of Eric Garner , who was placed in a chokehold by an NYPD officer allegedly confronting Garner about selling loose cigarettes, was not included in the official federal record. The NYPD has not submitted data to the FBI since 2006. It pledged earlier this month to release more detailed data on officers’ deadly use of force from next year.
Erica Garner, Garner’s daughter, said she was “outraged but not shocked” by the omission. “It’s just another part of the cover-up and erasing of his murder from the record,” Garner said. “It says to the NYPD and the city and state of New York that my father’s life doesn’t matter.”
No other department in the state of New York had any homicides by officers recorded by the FBI during the decade except for one, by Rochester in 2006. In its annual Firearms Discharge Reports, NYPD has recorded 117 “subjects shot and killed by officers” between 2004 and 2014. Its total of 13 shooting deaths for 2006, however, exceeded the 10 reported to the FBI that year, the only 12-month period in which the department participated in the FBI’s count.
NYPD’s own counts also did not include non-shooting deaths such as Garner’s. By contrast a more comprehensive count of incidents and details of the demographics of the people involved would be “a huge help in this so-called ‘push to improve police relations with the Black community’,” said Erica Garner.
Florida publishes its own annual record of justifiable homicides by law enforcement, despite no departments in the state filing a report to the FBI in the past decade. The state data from 2013 was provided to the Guardian but did not list the departments responsible for each death, instead it recorded a single, statewide figure of 60 deaths from all departments who submitted records that year.
Departments behind some of last year’s most controversial homicides by police, including Cleveland and Beavercreek in Ohio, whose officers shot dead 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 22-year-old John Crawford respectively, also did not file reports on those incidents to the FBI.
A review of data collected over the years by the FBI showed that high-profile homicides in which officers were found to be at fault were not recorded or were logged inconsistently. Problems stem from the fact that only one of the FBI’s 32 classifications for all homicides – which are precise enough to include “child killed by babysitter” and homicides linked to gambling – makes reference to the person who carried out the homicide being a police officer. This classification, “felon killed by police”, is automatically counted as a justifiable homicide.
Apparently because the FBI offers no category for recording killings by law enforcement officers of people who were not felons, some departments have filed unjustified homicides by their officers among the general stack of murders, manslaughters and other killings between civilians.
A record matching the case of Yvette Smith, a 47-year-old black woman who was shot dead by Bastrop County deputy Daniel Willis in Texas when she opened the door to him, appeared among the general unjustified homicides for 2014. As a result, it was not included in the total figure for killings by police publicised by the FBI last month. The death was filed under “circumstances undetermined” and Willis was logged as a stranger to Smith rather than an officer. A prosecution of Willis on charges of murder recently ended in a mistrial .
Similarly Jonathan Ferrell , a 24-year-old former football player at Florida A&M who was shot dead by officer Randall Kerrick after knocking on a door when he crashed his car in North Carolina, appeared to be included among general homicides for 2013. But his death was categorised as “manslaughter by negligence” and Kerrick was recorded as having been known to the victim. A trial of Kerrick for voluntary manslaughter also ended in a hung jury.
Yet no record in either file – homicides by police officers and those by civilians – could be found that matched other major cases, including that of Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old black man shot dead at a transit station in Oakland, California, in January 2009. Grant’s death was dramatised in the film Fruitvale Station. Officer Johannes Mehserle, who said he meant to use a Taser, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter but cleared of murder.
No entries appeared for Rekia Boyd, a 22-year-old woman shot dead by an off-duty Chicago police officer in March 2012, nor for Malissa Williams, 30, and Timothy Russell, 43, who died after 137 shots were fired into their car by police officers in Cleveland, Ohio in November the same year.
The FBI has also logged incorrect information for several deaths. Among these was the case of Darrien Hunt , a 22-year-old who was shot dead in September last year while running away from police in Saratoga Springs, Utah, after allegedly wielding a replica sword. Hunt was listed as the person who carried out the homicide, and a knife or blade was said to be the deadly weapon. Hunt and the officers who shot him were listed as acquaintances.
Hunt’s mother, Susan, said the confused logging of her son’s death came even after federal officials said earlier this year that the FBI and Department of Justice were carrying out their own review of the fatal shooting. “There has been so much wrong with the entire incident,” she said.
Fischer, the FBI spokesman, said departments had until December to submit missing or corrected data and said the information analysed by the Guardian for 2014 was “a snapshot in time” that may be updated.
A knife was also listed as the fatal weapon for a case matching the details of Chieu-di Thi Vo, a 47-year-old woman shot dead by a Greensboro, North Carolina, police officer in March last year after allegedly brandishing a knife. Vo’s demographic information was given for both the person who was killed and the officer who carried out the homicide, who was in fact a man. The FBI’s final published tally counted only one homicide by a blade, but did not state which this was.
The Counted has documented more than 900 deaths caused by encounters with law enforcement officers so far this year. The FBI count, from which basic statistics were published earlier this month, documented just 444 justifiable homicides for the whole of 2014 . That total was reached by the Guardian count before the halfway point of 2015.
The FBI data showed that while the number of homicides reported rose 14% from 196 per year in 2009 to 224 last year, the number of departments reporting killings by their officers increased by 12% from 392 to 439 per year in the same period.
Because of the nature of the FBI program there is no way of calculating whether these increases reflect a genuine rise in the number of people killed by police over the years or simply that more agencies have decided to submit their data.
Comey said last week that it was “unacceptable” the Guardian and the Washington Post were “becoming the lead source of information about violent encounters between police and civilians”.
“You can get online today and figure out how many tickets were sold to ‘The Martian,’ which I saw this weekend ... The CDC can do the same with the flu,” Comey said. “It’s ridiculous – it’s embarrassing and ridiculous – that we can’t talk about crime in the same way, especially in the high-stakes incidents when your officers have to use force.”