The deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers in recent years have raised a number of questions about the treatment of racial minorities within the criminal justice system, as well as about patterns of arrest-related deaths more generally. Some researchers are calling for Congressional-mandated government databases to be more thorough so they can better find patterns in the violent interactions between police and civilians.
The Baltimore Sun‘s 2014 investigation of these issues in that city revealed that “over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations.” Other outlets, such as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, have pursued similar investigations in their region. Still, it remains unclear how much these stark events and figures are characteristic of larger patterns across American society.
The limited data available do not suggest a recent overall increase in the number of homicides by police or the racial composition of those killed, despite the high-profile cases and controversies of 2014-2015, according to a New York Times analysis.
But a January 2015 report published in the Harvard Public Health Review, “Trends in U.S. Deaths due to Legal Intervention among Black and White men, Age 15-34 Years, by County Income Level: 1960-2010,” suggests persistent differences in risks for violent encounters with police:
“The rate ratio for black vs. white men for death due to legal intervention always exceeded 2.5 (median: 4.5) and ranged from 2.6 (95 percent confidence interval [CI] 2.1, 3.1) in 2001 to 10.1 (95 percent CI 8.7, 11.7) in 1969, with the relative and absolute excess evident in all county income quintiles.”
The case of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimore man who died in police custody on April 19, 2015 — now ruled a homicide — raises questions specifically about treatment during and immediately after initial arrest.
A March 2015 report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) concludes that the current Arrest-Related Death (ARD) program — which aims to track persons who die in custody in America at the state level — typically only counts about half, at best, of all deaths in police custody, and the coverage rate may be as low as 36 percent.
Although that estimate increased in 2011 to somewhere between 59 percent and 69 percent, the “current ARD program methodology does not allow a census of all law enforcement homicides in the United States,” researchers conclude.
The BJS’s 2015 “Data Quality Profile” report shows that some states have not reported statistics to the federal government in a given year between 2003 and 2011, and a few states have not participated at all.
That said, the federal government has nevertheless attempted to collect as much state-level data as possible in the past:
A federal census between 2003 and 2005 found there were 2,002 arrest-related deaths, and “homicides by state and local law enforcement officers were the leading cause of such deaths during this period (55 percent).” (There is no available statistical breakdown of how many of these homicides are the result of involuntary manslaughter versus intentional acts that might fall into the category of murder — issues that might be settled years later in the courts.)
For the most recent period where statistics are available (2003-2009), the BJS found that 4,813 persons “died during or shortly after law enforcement personnel attempted to arrest or restrain them… About 60 percent of arrest-related deaths (2,931) were classified as homicides by law enforcement personnel.”
However, among these 2,931 homicides by law enforcement personnel, 75.3 percent were reported to have taken place in response to a violent offense — constituting a force-on-force situation, such as an intervention with an ongoing assault, robbery or murder:
“Arrests for alleged violent crimes were involved in three of every four reported homicides by law enforcement personnel.” Still, 7.9 percent took place in the context of a public-order offense, 2.7 percent involved a drug offense, and among 9.2 percent of all homicides by police no specific context was reported.
Other factors implicated in deaths at the state level are as follows, according to BJS:
Death in custody (BJS)
Further, from 2003 to 2009:
Of reported arrest-related deaths, 45 percent of persons allegedly engaged in assault immediately prior to or during the arrest…. Of reported persons who died during the process of arrest, 95 percent were male. About 42 percent were white, 32 percent were black/African American and 20 percent were Hispanic or Latino. More than half (55 percent) were between ages 25 and 44, and juveniles (persons under age 18) were about 3 percent of all arrest-related deaths.
The federal government also tracks fatalities in jails and prisons through its Deaths in Custody Reporting Program (DCRP); typically, the vast majority of deaths result from illness or suicide, with homicides and unnatural deaths attributed in only a few percent of cases. The state-level requirements for that reporting program expired in 2006, but a new bill was signed into law in 2014. (It is worth pointing out that jails — which see all manner of persons, from those right off the street to those awaiting trial — and prisons — where those convicted of crimes are deliberately and systematically placed — are quite different in their population and environment.)
Reporting on incidents
Experts involved in analysis of these incidents caution that the numbers can often hide meaningful context, and reporters would be well served to go beneath the surface and ask about how data is collected — and any potential holes or weaknesses in the data. Overall, states have varied in their methods of reporting law enforcement-related incidents of many kinds to the federal government, an issue recently addressed by FBI Director James Comey.
For an example of how data, or the lack of it, can matter — and mislead — see the series on prison rape written by David Kaiser for The New York Review of Books. Finally, for news reporters covering individual incidents, context can be crucially important, from the degree to which a neighborhood is a high-crime area, or where assaults on officers are common; to the level of police training to deal with, for example, violent and mentally ill persons; to the precise nature of the incident and whether it involved a suspect threatening public safety at the time of a violent intervention by authorities.
There is also a substantial body of government and academic research on these issues, including on the uses of restraints and other law enforcement practices that may be employed to manage persons detained: