The FBI has released its latest edition of the Uniform Crime Reports, which includes an estimate of the number of "justifiable homicides" by police in 2013. As USA Today notes, the FBI's data suggest that killings by police are on the rise:
The number of felony suspects fatally shot by police last year — 461— was the most in two decades, according to a new FBI report...
This year, a USA TODAY analysis of the FBI's justifiable homicide database during a seven-year period ending in 2012 found an average of 96 incidents each year in which a white officer killed a black person.
The new 2013 total of justifiable killings represents the third consecutive increase in the annual toll.
In fact, 2013 has seen the highest number of "justifiable homicides" by police since 1975, a year for which the FBI reported 559 killings by law enforcement. The new FBI numbers are disturbing because violent and property crimes are actually declining.
As USA Today points out, however, the FBI's figures on killings by police are inaccurate, so it's tough to say whether the number of killings is really on the rise:
Criminal justice analysts said the inherent limitations of the database — the killings are self-reported by law enforcement, and not all police agencies participate in the annual counts — continue to frustrate efforts to identify the universe of lethal force incidents involving police.
University of Nebraska criminologist Samuel Walker said the incomplete nature of the data renders the recent spike in such deaths even more difficult to explain.
"It could be as simple as more departments are reporting,'' Walker said.
The Nebraska criminologist has been among the most vocal advocates calling for an all-inclusive national database to closely track deadly force incidents involving police.
"It is irresponsible that we don't have a complete set of numbers,'' Walker said. "Whether the numbers are up, down or stable, this (national database) needs to be done. ... This is a scandal.''
University of South Carolina criminologist Geoff Alpert, who has long studied police use of deadly force, said the latest number of justifiable homicides, while increasing, still likely represents a significant under-counting.
He said most major agencies have strongly supported close tracking of deadly force incidents. But he said the majority of police agencies in the country are small -- with fewer than 50 officers -- and their reporting practices involving such cases are not always uniform.
"Unfortunately, I think there has to be a government mandate for this kind of reporting that ties the responsibility to the communities' eligibility to receive federal funds.'' Alpert said. "It has to happen, because it has gotten to be an embarrassment.''
I looked into the FBI's data on police killings for an article published earlier this year and found they were incredibly inaccurate. The FBI only publishes the total number of killings in their reports, but I requested detailed data from them, which they provided for the years 1980 through 2008. Earlier this year, CommonWealth magazine put together data on the number of fatal police shootings in Massachusetts between 2002 and 2013 by making public records requests. I compared the FBI's data to CommonWealth's for 2002 through 2008 and found that the FBI was missing data on most of the shootings. While CommonWealth reported 34 fatal police shootings during this period, the FBI reported a mere 7 -- not even a quarter of them.
Journalists in other states have found problems with the FBI's data too. For instance, the Orlando Sentinel and WESH-NewsChannel 2 found that between 1999 and 2002, police agencies in Central Florida only reported about a quarter of fatal police shootings to the FBI.
While the numbers reported by the FBI are inaccurate, the data gathered by CommonWealth show that number of police shootings did rise in Massachusetts in 2013 as compared to other recent years. There were a dozen fatal shootings by police that year, the highest number in one year during the period tracked by CommonWealth. The next deadliest years were 2008 and 2012 which both saw eight fatal shootings by police.
While lots of people are calling on the federal government to start a comprehensive database of police shootings and killings, Jim Fisher, a former FBI agent, told me he was not particularly impressed by the idea. Fisher said he doesn't trust the government to properly manage such a project and would rather see a private organization do it.
In 2011, Fisher attempted to do just that, tracking information about shootings by police officers using news media reports that he found on the internet. He found reports of 1,146 police shootings, 607 of which were fatal. The FBI, on the other hand, reported only 404 "justifiable homicides" by police officers for 2011, all but 3 of which were shootings.