Government fails to track data about police shootings

October 5, 2013: Family members and supporters of Denis Reynoso rallied outside the Lynn Police Station to protest Reynoso's killing. In 2013, police in Massachusetts discharged firearms in at least 44 separate incidents, according to news media reports tracked by The Bay State Examiner. On average, there was a police shooting somewhere in Massachusetts more than eight out of every 10 weeks.[ref]For a complete list of the shooting incidents, see here.[/ref]

12 people were killed in police shootings, making 2013 the deadliest year for police shootings in Massachusetts in recent memory. Between 2002 and 2013, police in Massachusetts have shot at least 73 people to death, according to the magazine CommonWealth which published data on fatal police shootings in Massachusetts earlier this year. More people were shot to death by police in 2013 than any other year in this period. The next deadliest years were 2008 and 2012 which both saw eight fatal shootings by police.

In addition to the 12 dead, at least 18 people were injured by police gunfire in 2013. Furthermore, two transit police officers who were injured by gunfire during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects were likely hit by "friendly fire" from their fellow officers.

During at least eight occasions, police discharged firearms without hitting anyone.

In at least seven shooting incidents, police shot animals. Police shot at least eight dogs, killing five of them. State Environmental Police also shot a wild black bear to death which they claimed was a threat to public safety.

There were at least three police shootings described as accidents. Two took place during firearms training. Another was a bizarre incident in which a police dog reportedly fired a suspect's gun with its paw.

All but one of the shootings involved on-duty police officers. At least one Massachusetts police officer was responsible for an off-duty shooting in 2013, although it occurred in New Hampshire. An MBTA police detective, while suspended from his job because of a domestic violence arrest, reportedly shot four bullets into the wall of the hotel room he was renting in Nashua. The shooting led to a seven-hour standoff with police during which the suspended detective allegedly pointed his gun at a police officer before he finally surrendered.

Why police said they shot

The reason most commonly cited by police for shooting at someone last year was the presence of a firearm. Police shot at 18 people who they said were armed with firearms, two of whom were said to have taken guns away from police officers. Out of these 18 people, police killed nine and injured four. On five occasions, police missed the people they were shooting at and were subsequently able to arrest them without shooting again.

Police typically said they began shooting after first being shot at, although there were five cases where police shot at people they said had firearms without first being shot at.

Police also shot and injured a man they thought was armed with a firearm, but actually only had a pellet gun.

The second most commonly cited reason for shooting at someone was that the person tried to use a vehicle as a weapon against the police. Police said they opened fire on people using vehicles as weapons at least six times. In four cases, police hit only the driver of the vehicle with gunfire. In two cases, the police hit both the driver and a passenger.

In two cases, police shot people who they said attacked them with knives. Police also shot a man they said attacked them with a hatchet.

In another shooting incident, a state police trooper killed a man who he said attacked him with a pen.

Police shot four people who they said were unarmed at the time of the shooting, including the two people who were passengers in vehicles that were shot at.

In one incident, news media reports did not make it clear whether the person police shot was armed or not.

In many, if not most, of these shootings, police likely faced armed, violent people and were legally justified when they shot, however, a number of the shootings raise troubling questions. In some cases, the stories police have told the public simply do not add up.

For instance, in September, Lynn police shot Iraq war veteran Denis Reynoso to death in front of his five year old son after entering Reynoso's apartment without a warrant. The three police involved in the shooting said that Reynoso took one of their guns and was able to fire it off twice, prompting them to fear they would be killed, however, investigators did not find any gunshot residue on Reynoso's hands nor did they link any of the DNA on the gun to Reynoso. Investigators also failed to interview Reynoso's son, the only living witness to the shooting who was not a police officer.

Despite the lack of physical evidence to corroborate the Lynn police's story about why they shot Denis Reynoso, the Essex County District Attorney cleared the officers and declined to press criminal charges.[ref]For a more thorough critique of the DA's investigations, see our article "District attorney rubber-stamps slaying of Denis Reynoso by Lynn police."[/ref]

In fact, between 2002 and 2013, prosecutors never filed criminal charges against any police officers who shot people to death in Massachusetts no matter how questionable the shooting was, according to CommonWealth.

No government agency accurately tracks police shootings

The Bay State Examiner began collecting data about police shootings in Massachusetts in 2013 because there are no government programs that accurately track this information.

No state or local government agency in Massachusetts publishes information about the number of shootings by police, although some provide limited information when it is requested from them.

Reports by the Massachusetts State Police Use of Force Committee that were provided to The Bay State Examiner in response to public records requests indicate that the department has trouble keeping track of shootings by its own officers.

Graphs included in the 2012 report by the Use of Force Committee indicate that state police officers never used their firearms that year.

However, the introduction to the report tells a different story. "Department troopers discharged rounds from their issued firearms in 4 incidents involving motor vehicles. The incidents/reports have yet to be reviewed by the UOF Committee," the report states.

Graphs in the 2013 report also indicate that there were no shootings in 2012 and there is no mention of these shootings in the introduction to the report, suggesting that the Committee never got around to reviewing them.

The 2013 report says that state police used their firearms four times that year. The introduction to the report also mentions two incidents that are currently still under investigation, for a total of six shootings. However, state police used their firearms in at least eight incidents in 2013 according to reports from the media.

According to the state police reports, the data tracked by the Use of Force Committee is used as part of an early warning system that is supposed to help the state police identify problem officers.

The magazine CommonWealth asked the Massachusetts State Police to provide data on all fatal police shootings they investigated between 2002 and 2013. The State Police are responsible for investigating all police shootings in Massachusetts except for those that occur in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield. According to CommonWealth, the state police failed to provide information about 11 shootings in Plymouth, Bristol, and Norfolk counties.

According to a Massachusetts State Police policy document, it is the responsibility of the Colonel or Superintendent of the state police to notify the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) whenever a police shooting occurs, however, the EOPSS said in response to a public records request that it does not maintain any records about police shootings at all.

The Boston Police Department and Springfield Police Department did not respond to public records requests for information about police shootings despite repeated attempts to contact them.[ref]We were not alone in experiencing problems with these police departments.

Jack Sullivan, the reporter for CommonWealth who gathered data about police shootings, said that police in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield did not respond to his records requests for information about police shootings.

Maria Cramer, a Boston Globe reporter who recently gathered data about police shootings in Massachusetts, also said the police in Worcester and Springfield did not respond to her requests for information.[/ref]

No nationwide statistics about police shootings

The lack of reliable statistics about police shootings is a nationwide problem.

Two federal government programs purport to track the number of people killed by police throughout the United States, but neither has managed to produce accurate, comprehensive statistics.

The FBI’s crime statistics program, the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), includes yearly estimates of the number of "justifiable homicides" by police officers.[ref]The data on "justifiable homicides" by law enforcement is reported every year in Table 14 of the Expanded Homicide Data Tables section of the Uniform Crime Reports. For the most recent example, see here.[/ref] The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) also has a program that tracks "arrest-related deaths" and specifies what number of the reported deaths were homicides by police.[ref]See the Arrest-Related Deaths page on the Bureau of Justice Statistics' website here.[/ref]

It’s voluntary for police departments to submit data to both programs, so many choose not to. Other departments provide the programs with data that is incomplete or inaccurate.

The FBI has been tracking homicides by police since the sixties to the present, however, they only provided The Bay State Examiner with detailed data for 1980 to 2008. The data they provided includes information about the age, sex, and race of the police officers and victims as well as the type of weapon used by police.[ref]See here to view the data the FBI shared with us.[/ref]

Between 2002 and 2008, 7 homicides committed by police in Massachusetts were reported to the FBI's Uniform Crime Statistics program, but CommonWealth found 34 fatal shootings by police in Massachusetts during that same time period.

The Massachusetts State Police and at least 19 local police departments were responsible for fatal shootings during this time period, but only the police departments in Amesbury, Boston, and New Bedford submitted data to the FBI. The data submitted by Boston and Amesbury police were inaccurate.[ref]The Massachusetts State Police and local police from Brockton, Cambridge, Dedham, Eastham, Fall River, Foxoboro, Framingham, Franklin, Lowell, Lynn, Mansfield, Monson, Peabody, Plymouth, Quincy, and Yarmouth were all responsible for fatal shootings between 2002 and 2008, but none of them reported data to the FBI.

The Boston Police Department submitted data to the FBI during this period, but the data were not complete. Boston police reported only three shootings, but they were responsible for at least eight, according to CommonWealth.

The FBI's data on a 2003 police shooting in Amesbury indicates that a police officer shot three men to death. What actually happened was that three Amesbury police officers shot one man to death. According to CommonWealth, Brian Wood was shot to death by Amesbury police officers Michael Purvis, David Noyes, Jason Kooken.[/ref]

Between 2003 and 2009, 18 homicides committed by police were reported to the Bureau of Justice Statistics,[ref]See Andrea M. Burch, "Data Table Arrest-Related Deaths, 2003-2009 - Statistical Tables," Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 17, 2011, p. 8.[/ref] but CommonWealth found 33 fatal shootings by police in Massachusetts during that same time period.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics would not provide any detailed information about its data, making it impossible to say which police departments have failed to report data.

"BJS does not release information about specific agencies reporting to the [Arrest-Related Deaths] program," said Andrea Burch, the BJS statistician who is currently in charge of the program.

Journalists in other states have found examples of police departments that fail to report data about killings to the federal government.

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 UCR program.

The Capital Times found in 2013 that the Madison Police Department in Wisconsin reports killings to the FBI for its UCR program, but does not report them to the BJS program.

The Arrest-Related Deaths program did not start until 2003. It has only published data about the years 2003 to 2009 even though it has continued to gather new data since then.

"BJS is undertaking a review and assessment of the program," explained Andrea Burch. "Publication of the 2010 – current data has been suspended in light of the ongoing program assessment." Burch said that the Bureau of Justice Statistics is trying to determine if the program has any problems with under-reporting.

A new approach is needed

Jim Fisher, a law professor and former FBI agent, said he became interested in obtaining statistics about police shootings while researching police militarization, a term used to describe the increasing tendency of police to use military weapons and tactics.

"The police are too militarized, have too many combat-type weapons, have a warrior mentality instead of a public service mentality," Fisher said.

Fisher wanted to know if the militarization of police was leading to police shooting people more frequently.

"I found out very quickly that the government doesn't maintain a database on how many citizens the police kill every year and that struck me as really odd because the federal government has statistics on everything. I mean, you could probably find out how many tons of potatoes people over 50 eat every year in Wisconsin," Fisher said.

"The government doesn't want us to know how many people the police shoot every year," Fisher said. "And that's because they shoot more people every year than we think."

Fisher said it would be preferable for a private organization to keep track of statistics about police shootings.

"One thing you can't trust are any kind of government statistics," Fisher said. "They fudge the numbers."

Fisher said that police shooting incidents can be tracked by using media reports. "An inquisitive citizen can track every day fairly accurately how many people in the country are being shot. While these are no longer big stories like they used to be, they are stories," he said.

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.

Fisher's research may provide a more accurate estimate of the number of people shot by in 2011 than any government programs, but it still does not provide a complete picture of the use of deadly force by police that year.

"My stats do no include misses," Fisher said. "I didn't keep track of those, and believe me, there are a lot of them. They're shooting at fleeing cars, bullets are flying all over the place. It's only just out of luck that nobody is hit by one of these bullets."

Fisher also did not track incidents of off-duty police firing weapons in non-law enforcement-related situations or police shootings of animals.

Neither the FBI nor the Bureau of Justice Statistics collect information about injuries, misses, shootings by off-duty police, or police shootings of animals.

Earlier this year, State Police Colonel Timothy Alben suggested that police shootings are a rare occurrence. "How many interactions do we have with the public over the course of [one] year?" Alben told The Boston Globe. "There are literally hundreds of thousands... on an annual basis and hundreds of them that are done every day. How many of those end up being deadly force situations, I would suggest to you that the percentage is minuscule."

But in the absence of reliable statistics about police shootings, it's difficult to define what a miniscule percentage really is.

Until accurate statistics about police shootings exist, it will be impossible to say whether police are using more or less deadly force than in the past or to compare rates of deadly force usage among different police departments.

The use of deadly force by police is the most significant form of government intrusion a person can experience. Throughout the United States, thousands of people have been killed by police over the past few decades.

With such scant information about police shootings available, it is clear that the issue merits greater attention and scrutiny from government officials, journalists, academics, and the public at large.

As Jim Fisher put it, "When a police officer shoots a civilian, when a police officer shoots at a civilian, if that is no longer a big deal in our culture, in the way that we think of police behavior, in journalism, then that's a problem."

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