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What is Missing in the Debate about Police Violence in the US

Iain Overton explains how there are countless non-fatal shootings at the hands of law enforcement in America that need to be discussed, too.

Greenville police in riot gear line up as a man lies on the ground during a protest remembering George Floyd at Falls Park on 31 May 2020
What is Missing in the Debate about Police Violence in the US

Iain Overton explains how there are countless non-fatal shootings at the hands of law enforcement in America that need to be discussed, too.

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Police killings are once again headlines in the United States. The video of the death of George Floyd at the hands of white police officer Derek Chauvin has reignited anger over police killings of black Americans and reopened deep wounds over racial inequality across the nation. Protests that began in Minneapolis have spread across the country and riots and protests have taken place in New York, Atlanta, Oakland, Dallas and many other cities.

It is not hard to see why so many people are furious. 

According to The Washington Post’s police shootings database, 1,004 people were shot and killed by US law enforcement officers in 2019. Indeed, over a five-year period (2015 to 2019), some 4,939 people of all racial backgrounds were shot and killed by American police. Many of them were African American.

So it is that a black man being killed by a white police officer appears to happen on an almost daily basis in the United States.

But, unbelievable as this might sound, is the violence carried out by America’s police forces even worse than these figures suggest?

By just reporting on those killed by US police officers, does The Washington Post fail to account for a far wider, more systemic harm? The fact is that such reporting just counts the dead – there is no official central record of how many people have been shot and injured by US police. 

To gauge just how many people might be surviving being shot by America’s police forces, myself and a team of researchers looked at 10 of America’s most ‘violent’ cities – as defined by the number of people shot and killed by US police in 2016. We sent a Freedom of Information request, asking how many people had been shot and killed and how many people had been shot and injured by these city police units between 2011 and 2016. Seven of the 10 cities responded – Baltimore, Detroit, Memphis, Milwaukee, Oakland, St Louis and Stockton.

During this time frame, it was reported that there had been 253 people shot and killed by these city police forces. But a further 478 people had been shot and had survived.  This meant that 731 people had been shot by police in just seven American cities over five years. 

These numbers suggest that, overall, as many as three times the number of people are shot and wounded by US police as are shot and killed.

If such a pattern of harm scaled proportionally across the United States it could suggest that, on top of the almost 5,000 people shot and killed by America’s police units between 2015 and 2019, as many as 15,000 more may have been wounded.

It speaks towards a shocking combined total of almost 20,000 people struck down by police firearms in just five years.

Obviously, such an assumption implies that what happens in cities takes a similar form in rural areas. Further, it does not account for the under-reporting of fatal police shootings. It does, however provide enough of a cause for concern to warrant a change in the way American police shootings are covered by the media – so that journalists do not simply fixate on the dead, but report on those wounded by police shootings too.

Certainly, systematically finding such injury data on a nationwide scale is challenging. There is a reluctance in some forces to release this information and certain police departments, for instance, refuse to provide data to the FBI on their gun violence statistics. The FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention log fatal shootings by police, but officials acknowledge that their data is incomplete. 

Admittedly, in 2019, the FBI did release its national use-of-force data collection. This data covers fatal and non-fatal injuries incurred through a variety of police encounters. But submission is entirely voluntary, and that data is not yet available for outside review.

The truth is that fatal and non-fatal police shootings, particularly in an age of Black Lives Matter, are profoundly political. But such data would be crucial to understanding the dynamics of police gun violence in the United States. 

Are, for instance, police shootings more prevalent in areas with higher levels of gun ownership? Do local and state laws relating to guns have an impact on police departments’ use of force? What demographic groups in the US are being shot and wounded disproportionately – and does this differ from those being shot and killed? 

It is known, for example, that in 2010 – excluding suicides – guns took the lives of 11,078 Americans. In the same year, 73,505 Americans were treated in hospital emergency departments for non-fatal gunshot wounds. Assuming that most of these non-fatal wounds were not inflicted by those seeking to end their lives, it would mean that – roughly – for each person shot and killed, seven survived. How do police force shootings compare to this rate? If more people are – on average – killed during police exchange of fire incidents, what does that tell us?

Without the collection of comprehensive nationwide data on all police shootings – one funded centrally and enforced by law – such questions will remain unanswered. But perhaps that is why such data is not made available: because the answers could, perhaps, show just how rotten law enforcement in the US really is.

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