Police Shootings Are Wildly Underreported, Study Finds

Despite police officers’ use of lethal force being a frequent topic of conversation in this country, there’s been one thing missing from the discussion: data. The federal government doesn’t collect stats on when police officers shoot their firearms at civilians, potentially obscuring how big of a problem it is.

VICE News has stepped in to crunch some of the numbers itself and announced this week that the previous estimates that have been cited on police shootings have been wildly undercounted. In actuality, there are at least twice as many people shot by police as previously cited.

The study’s findings give credence to the plight of activists in the Black Lives Matter and police accountability movements. It’s not just the total number of victims that have been underreported – the percentage of people hit by police bullets that are either non-white and/or unarmed is significantly higher than previously understood.

For the purposes of the study, VICE News analyzed the shooting reports for the country’s 50 biggest local police forces. Combined these police departments shot at least 3,631 people between 2010 and 2016, averaging over 500 victims per year. The scope of the study includes 148,000 officers who represent communities totaling 54 million Americans.

While there have been efforts to get police shootings on the record nationwide, participation is sorely lacking. Only 35 police departments – out of 18,000, mind you – hand over these stats to the government for perusal. To complete its study, VICE had to take a more tedious approach of seeking out the individual reports themselves, and even still acknowledged many shootings may have slipped through the cracks.

David Klinger, a one-time LAPD cop and current professor of criminal justice talked about the importance of having these kinds of stats. “We should know about how often it happens if for no other reason than to simply understand the phenomenon,” Klinger said. “How often is it that police are putting bullets in people’s bodies or trying to put bullets in people’s bodies?”

Prior to VICE’s report, the Washington Post was believed to have the most comprehensive look at police shootings. Compared to the Post, VICE discovered that African Americans are killed at a 28 percent higher rate and unarmed people are at least four times more likely to be killed than previously expected.

The good news is that police shootings are down more recently, seemingly due in part to the attention this subject has received and some of the modest reform efforts departments have made. Unfortunately, Attorney General Jeff Sessions continues to advocate for eliminating these positive reforms.

Black victims are also more likely to have been detained for something minor (think traffic violation or loitering) before being shot, only to have the situation escalate drastically. When police shoot white people, they are more likely to enter the scene informed that the suspect is armed and dangerous.

That discrepancy points to underlying bias. If officers are more often startled by routine interactions with black people and respond with lethal force – who are often unarmed, remember – the factor does seem to be.

Another stat that tends to go under the radar is how often police fire at civilians/suspects and miss. VICE tallied over 700 times that this occurred during the same six-year span. When you include those missed targets, that means that approximately two-thirds of people shot at by the police ultimately survive. In other words, this problem could be even more pronounced if the officers’ aims were better.

For those who think the missed shots are intentional, it’s a common misconception that cops are trained to aim for the extremities to “disable” rather than kill a suspect. In reality, police are taught to use lethal force to confront people they consider legitimate threats to their safety – if they aren’t in immediate danger, they’re not supposed to be using their firearm in the first place.

For every victim of a police shooting that gains national attention, there are many more who barely get noticed in even the local news. Something big is happening here, and according to this latest set of stats, it’s even bigger than we realized. Hopefully this more thorough look at the scenario will help to elevate the urgency and understanding of the situation.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

32 comments

Marie W
Marie W10 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Angela J
Angela Jabout a year ago

Thank you.

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Brian F
Brian Fabout a year ago

The police are all crooks who work for the 1%. Like the factory farm workers who allow animal abuse, and say nothing, these cowards say nothing when innocent people go to jail for marijuana and have their lives ruined or when innocent people are killed. You have a better chance of winning the lottery, than seeing one of these paid thugs go to prison for killing someone.

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RONALD Walker
RONALD Walkerabout a year ago

Last night I watch 60 Minutes about NAZI's. The story was a NAZI leader that was interviewed and what they were doing. For one NAZI are asking there members to join the Police. Now no one knows just how many NAZI is members of the police. The person that was interview on 60 minutes has changed and working to help change people minds who are NAZI. The question I have is how many NAZI are now police officer? That is something that needs to be investigated!

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Anne F
Anne Fabout a year ago

We need to pay attention at a locla, county and state level.

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Freya H
Freya Habout a year ago

Police officers have a dangerous job, and frequently deal with people who hate them. Thus, you can't blame them for being a little paranoid. On the other hand, that does not give them the right to be trigger-happy. Perhaps increased police shootings have inspired hate for cops, which leads to more slayings of cops, which makes constables more paranoid - sounds like a classic vicious cycle.

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RONALD Walker
RONALD Walkerabout a year ago

What I am about to write is not from any Scientific study. Here is what I have learned over the years. Being a veteran of Vietnam War and made a few talks over the years about the war to young people in High school and College. One of the questions I have been asked of me the most has astonished me. Here's the annoying question. "How many people have I killed"? I have asked myself "why does this question keeps coming up." I just don't know! So here is what I am thinking. Movies and TV shows and many are cop shows showing the star shooting many people in one season. My irrational thinking is this. Are the police are seeing them selfs as that character? I fail to answer the question here. So here is my feeling. Movies and TV are becoming more real looking all the time. Are people becoming immune? Next, has police stop feeling that the people they are shooting are not people in their heads? In the Military, we come up with names of the enemy and the names are not friendly. This does make it easier to shoot at people we don't know. There should be a study of this movie and tv scenario. There may be a study going on as I write this.

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Paulo R
Paulo Rabout a year ago

ty

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Paulo R
Paulo Rabout a year ago

ty

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David C
David Cabout a year ago

thanks, noted

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