The following time-lapse animation shows all reported and verified officer-involved shootings that occurred in California in 2014. Each circle represents an individual incident.
In a series of highly publicized incidents in late 2014, white police officers killed unarmed black males, sparking widespread concern about the excessive use of force and drawing attention to the lack of reliable data on officer-involved fatalities.
To date, there is no comprehensive federal database cataloging the use of deadly force by law enforcement agencies, and the frequency of these incidents remains largely unknown.
The closest thing to an official government tally is classified in the FBI’s annual Supplementary Homicide Report as “justifiable homicide” by law enforcement, which it defines as “the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty.” In 2013, the last year for which data were available, the FBI reported 461 justifiable homicides by law enforcement, with a yearly average of 420.4 reported since 2009.
In its analysis of these figures, the investigative news agency ProPublica found that black males were killed at 21 times the rate of their white counterparts.
The data, while striking, are noticeably incomplete and the method for collecting them inaccurate on several fronts. For one, the tally relies entirely on voluntary self-reporting by local and state police agencies. In other words, these departments are not required to give up any information. And whereas the vast majority of police departments around the country provides the FBI each year with more common crime data — such as a city’s total homicide rate — fewer agencies elect to submit justifiable homicide figures.
Additionally, the tally doesn’t include “unjustifiable homicide by police.” In fact, that’s not even a classification in the FBI’s crime reporting database. And because the “justifiability” — aka legality — of an incident is determined by a subsequent investigation that may extend beyond the reporting year, the data from the previous year may never be updated once the case is resolved.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently criticized the lack of transparency as “unacceptable.”
“The troubling reality is that we lack the ability right now to comprehensively track the number of incidents of either uses of force directed at police officers or uses of force by police,” Holder said during a recent Justice Department ceremony honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Police departments and state agencies, he added, should be legally required to report these incidents to the FBI., a measure that would likely require congressional approval.
Even given the FBI’s lowball figures, the United States’ officer-involved fatality rates dwarf those of most other industrialized nations. From 2009 to mid-2012 in England and Wales, police officers reportedly discharged their firearms a total of 18 times, killing nine civilians. And not a single police shooting death was reported there in the 2012 – 2013 reporting year. Rates for Germany, Australia and Japan are similarly low. These nations are, of course, much smaller than the U.S. and have significantly stricter gun control laws. But the discrepancy is startling nonetheless.
In the absence of a comprehensive national database on officer-related fatalities, a handful of independent crowd-sourced projects have recently sprouted online. Sites like Fatal Encounters and Deadspin compile user-submitted local reports of police-involved killings (justifiable or not). The nonprofit Gun Violence Archive project, which tabulates incidents of gun violence in the general population, also collects data on officer-involved shootings.
Among the most reliable of the batch is Killed By Police, an anonymously managed project that compiles mainstream media reports submitted by individual users through Facebook. To date, the site lists 1,952 officer-related killings nationally since May 2013, when it began collecting data. Of these, 1,103 were reported in 2014 and 81 have already been reported since the start of 2015.
In a recent audit of the site, the news publication FiveThirtyEight said it “confirmed that the links represented legitimate stories,” revealing dramatically higher incident rates than suggested by FBI reporting. And although the site clearly does not take a neutral stance on the issue (@PigStateNews, the associated Twitter account, provides a none too subtle indication) the data we examined speaks for itself.
In our analysis of the site, we looked specifically at officer-involved deaths in California in 2014. In total, we calculated 156 incidents involving civilians killed by police. Of these, there were 144 male victims and 12 female. Of the 67 incidents in which race information was reported, there were 34 Latino, 14 black, 15 white and four Asian victims.
California’s rate of officer-involved fatalities in 2014 is more than .41 per 100,000 population, slightly higher than the national rate of roughly .35 per 100,000 for the same year (assuming the relative accuracy of the Killed By Police national count of 1,104 police-related killings for 2014).
In creating our own database and associated maps of police-related fatalities in California, we considered all reported deaths of civilians by on-duty officers in local, state and federal police agencies, as well as transit and school campus police. Incidents include shootings as well as deaths resulting from use of force during arrest or detention.
Our database is primarily composed of incidents listed on Killed By Police’s site, although we also included several additional cases from in the Los Angeles Times’ Homicide Report. Incidents are included here only if verified by an established news outlet (with a working link). We excluded incidents involving off-duty officers, individuals killed in accidents involving law enforcement vehicles and prisoners killed in incidents involving state corrections officers.
Given the nature of crowd-sourced reporting, we recognize that this database is likely incomplete, and encourage readers to send us additional verified news reports.
Individual officer-related killings in California, 2014
Mouseover each marker to see the name of the victim. Click on the marker for the date and location of the incident, the victim’s age and race (if known), the officer’s name (if known) and the news source link(s). Zoom in for more specific detail or search by city or ZIP code (at top right).
Officer-related killings by law enforcement agency
Note: Although the five incidents involving California Highway Patrol officers occurred throughout the state, the marker is placed at CHP’s headquarters in Sacramento. Additionally, four separate incidents involving officers from more than one department are included here under the larger of the two departments. Also, keep in mind that while law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles have the highest fatality counts in the state, they also oversee the largest population-based jurisdiction.