Police Shootings: How Bad Are Things?

Epistemic Status: rough, back-of-envelope

How many people are killed by police in the US? How does this compare to death rates from other causes?

In 2015, the Washington Post counted 990 Americans shot by police, the Guardian counted 1146 killed, and Fatal Encounters reported 1357, while the FBI and BJS’s 7-year average number of police killings per year were 418 and 380, respectively.

In 2012, an estimated 55,400 people were killed or hospitalized by police; 1 in 291 stops or arrests resulted in hospital-treated injury or death.  1063 suffered fatal injuries. Beatings were by far the most common cause of injury, while shooting was the most common cause of death.

I’m inclined to believe the reporters’ numbers over the FBI and BJS’s numbers, and estimate something like 1000-1500 police killings a year, and tens of thousands of police-caused hospitalizations a year.

Comparison to Total Homicides

According to the CDC, there were 15,809 homicides in America in 2014, and 2.1 million emergency room visits for assault in 2011.

This means that 5-10% of all homicides are committed by police.  3% of all severe assaults are committed by police.

There are about 765,000 police in the US. There are about 152 million men, who commit about 90% of homicides; there were 9972 male homicide perpetrators in 2010.  Thus, roughly, a policeman is 30x as likely to kill you as a randomly chosen man is.

Breakdown by Race

According to the Washington Post, 48% of people killed by police are white, while 25% were black. (The remainder were of a different or unknown race.)  This represents an overrepresentation of black people and underrepresentation of white people, since the US is 62% white and 13% black.  Black people are 2.5x as likely as white people to be killed by police.

There’s some research showing that there is no racial disparity in the rate of police killing per encounter, but researching “per encounter” rates of violence hides a lot under the rug.  If police are biased against black people, they are more likely to “encounter” them, looking for a reason to arrest them, and thus are more likely to escalate to violence. On the other hand, black people commit more crimes (per population) than white people.  Teasing out what constitutes police bias and what constitutes justifiable increased policing intensity is a tough subject.  What’s not in doubt is that the burden of police killings falls disproportionately on black people.

Comparison to Lynching

While this may seem an inflammatory comparison, a lynching, like a police killing, is an extrajudicial killing of a suspected or alleged criminal.

According to the Tuskegee Institute, the year with the highest number of lynchings, 1892, saw 61 whites lynched and 161 blacks lynched.

Given that the US population in 1892 was only about 20% of its current size, this means that, adjusted for population, about as many people are killed by police today as were lynched in the 1890s.

Looking at black people specifically, who were 12% of the US population in 1890, just as they are today, the risk of being lynched for a black person was about twice as high in the 1890s than the risk of being shot by a cop for a black person is today. Lynchings were notably more skewed towards black people than police shootings are.

Comparison to Police States

There is absolutely no comparison in magnitude between anything happening in the US criminal justice system and Stalin’s Great Purge, which killed between 600,000 and 1.2 million people, out of a population of roughly 100 million.

As we noticed with hate crimes, looking at serious problems of violence in the US can put into perspective how terrifyingly, unimaginably bad Hitler and Stalin were. Our problems are not trivial, but totalitarian regimes are…a fundamentally different kind of thing.

Augusto Pinochet had an estimated 40,018 people killed, tortured, or forcibly disappeared between 1973 and 1990, or an estimated 2354 per year, out of a population of 10-13 million.  His regime was at least 50x as deadly as US police are.

South Africa under apartheid tried and executed about 134 political prisoners between 1961 and 1989, which is not quite comparable to police killings, but is a lower rate than exists in the US.  However, South African “deaths in police custody” in 1997-2004, immediately after apartheid, averaged 434 deaths a year, while 763 people were killed by the apartheid government’s police in 1985, an unusually violent year.  Police killings in apartheid South Africa were roughly 5x as common per population as they are in the present-day US, while police killings in 1990’s South Africa were roughly 2.5x as common as they are in the present-day US.

According to a recent human rights agency’s report, 323 people have died in Egyptian prison facilities since 2013 after the recent coup, as well as 624 protesters killed.   This is comparable to the number of police killings in the US.

245 people were killed by Venezuelan security and police forces in 2015; per population, this is about twice as many as police killings in America.

Thailand’s war on drugs, which involved 2800 extrajudicial killings in the first three months after it began in 2003, is at least 10x as deadly as police in America are.

200 people died in police custody last year in Russia, about half the rate of police shootings in America per population.

The US is generally, but not always, less deadly to its citizens than typical authoritarian regimes.  The US has similar rates of death due to police as present-day South Africa, Russia, Venezuela, and Egypt.

Comparisons to other causes of death

Like all kinds of homicide, the number of police homicides pales in comparison to the number of deaths due to disease. Cancer kills more than hundreds of times as many people per year than police do. Suicide kills 30-40x as many.  Infant mortality kills more than 15 times as many.  HIV kills six times as many people.   Doctors and medical researchers are still on the front lines against death.

And prison itself probably causes quite a bit more humanitarian damage than police killings do.

However, justice matters too. An innocent person killed by police is wronged, in a way that a person who succumbs to a disease is not. Police killings count towards the vaguely defined but important category of “evidence that we don’t live in a free and just society”, in the same way that torture, detention without trial, mass surveillance, and other civil liberties violations do.


11 thoughts on “Police Shootings: How Bad Are Things?

  1. I feel like when you are counting police shootings in the process of comparing them to lynchings, talking about how 5-10% of homicides are committed by police, and calling them “evidence that we don’t live in a free and just society”, it’s important to mention that about 66% of police shootings are committed against somebody who is in the middle of attacking police with a deadly weapon. See eg https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings/

  2. >Thus, roughly, a policeman is 30x as likely to kill you as a randomly chosen man is.

    This seems a little off. First, a minor point: using the midpoint of your estimated 1,000-1,500 police homicides I get 25x: (1,250/765,000)/(9,972/152,000,000)~=25. I get 30x if I use 1,500. But more importantly, “you” might be the wrong wording here. It’s true that these statistics show that if you have been killed, a randomly chosen police officer is ~25x more likely to be your killer than a randomly chosen man. But that doesn’t mean that you personally are 25x more likely to be killed by a police officer. You have some influence over what sorts of situations you wind up in, and that affects both your chances of being killed by a non-police-officer and your chances of being killed by a police officer. I would be pretty surprised if non-police who commit violent crimes are disproportionately likely to be killed by a police officer, even accounting for an elevated rate of being killed in general. Understanding the rates among subgroups by behavior seems quite important here in understanding the effect of police violence, and its incidence on people who don’t attack other people.

    • Oops, misworded. I meant that I would be pretty UNsurprised if non-police who commit violent crimes are disproportionately likely to be killed by a police officer.

  3. FBI and BJS’s 15-year average number of police killings per year were 195.4 and 177, respectively

    You took the 2003-2009 totals and divided by 15 rather than 7. Your source says that the 15 year FBI average is 390.

    As I said a couple posts ago, UCR doesn’t have universal reporting and this is worst with killings by police. I think that these small numbers reflect large numbers of departments just not submitting the UCR supplement.

  4. ” This represents an overrepresentation of black people and underrepresentation of black people, ”


    “Lynchings were notably more skewed towards black people than police shootings are.”

    Apples and orange comparison- lynchings were primarily in the south and the South pre-1920 had a larger portion of blacks than the entire country does today.

    “An innocent person killed by police is wronged, in a way that a person who succumbs to a disease is not.”

    And what about innocent people killed by criminals? If the police and police shootings are necessary to prevent that, you are going to get an increase in people being wronged as your society becomes safer and freer.

  5. My impression is that both the average murderer AND the average murder victim has a record of multiple prior violent felonies. So if you are not yourself a violent criminal and don’t spend time around violent criminals, “your” chance of being killed by anyone is much smaller than raw statistics might otherwise suggest.

    A brief googling finds this in support: http://www.wnd.com/2013/03/most-murder-victims-in-big-cities-have-criminal-record/
    Quote: “In Philadelphia in 2011, of 324 murders, 81 percent (263) of the victims had at least one prior arrest; 62 percent (164) had been arrested for a violent crime prior to their murder.”
    (Similar stats are presented for a bunch of other cities.)

  6. Fwiw, the BJS stats look like they’re “arrest-related deaths,” which is broader than being killed by police. “It includes “all juvenile and adult deaths of criminal suspects and noncriminal individuals attributed to events that occurred while the decedent either attempted to elude police during the course of apprehension or while in the custody of law enforcement.” http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=82.

    The latest report is out of date but looks like about 60% of arrest related deaths are homicides (which include homicides by police and also by other people). About 35% are accidents, intoxication, suicides, or natural causes and the last 5% are unknown. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ard0309st.pdf. So they seem to be missing an even bigger proportion of deaths than the FBI although it’s possible that some police killings actually are not arrest related using this definition.

  7. Police claiming they “fear for their lives” is the go to lie to legalize murder by cop. Just like the latest lie
    they use to illegally search a car, ” I smell marijuana “.
    Regardless of who is doing these studies, the one major factor in the increase
    of police violence that is never spoken of , is who has been training US cops since 9/11.
    The last 2 links below are examples of who is training cops to view citizens as the enemy and to shoot to kill.

    Police trained by war criminals

    Why We Should Be Alarmed That Israeli Forces and U.S. Police Are Training Together

    Israeli mother Addresses European Parliament


    An Israeli Soldier’s Story – Eran Efrati

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