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Violence in blue Patrick Ball

Police homicides in the United States

Americans are afraid of many threats to their lives – serial killers, crazed gunmen, gang
bangers, and above all terrorists – but these threats are surprisingly unlikely. Approximately
three-quarters of all homicide victims in America are killed by someone they know. And the
real threat from strangers is quite different from what most fear: one-third of all Americans
killed by strangers are killed by police.

This is the story of the hidden numbers of police homicides in the United States. The killings
of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Walter Scott have increased the world’s attention to US
police violence, yet most Americans underestimate the threat posed by the people charged
with keeping them safe.
Let’s turn to the facts.
There is no national registry of civilians killed by police and corrections officers in the United
States. Several states, including Texas, Connecticut and California, maintain complete
records, but in most parts of the United States, local law enforcement chooses whether to
report officer-involved homicides to the federal government. The lack of systematic data
poses a challenge both for those who wish to hold police accountable for their actions and
for those who want to propose reform measures to reduce police violence. How many killings
are committed by police?

In recent months, a number of ‘crowdsourced’ databases have emerged, including in
particular Fatal Encounters and Killed by Police. Journalistic efforts, including those by the
Washington Post and the Guardian, have conducted infographic-style analyses of the patterns
of police homicides that are known to the public. This latter qualification is a big one.

For the past twenty-five years, my colleagues and I have documented mass killings by state
agents in over thirty countries around the world. From El Salvador to South Africa, from
Kosovo to East Timor, from Colombia to Congo, we have built databases and conducted
statistical analyses of patterns of violence by governments on behalf of tribunals, truth
commissions, UN human rights missions and for local human rights activists. One of the only
constants across all these examples is that the data we are able to collect is always partial.

for any reason. these narratives are correct. or because they used excessive force. In their own narratives. They create narratives that distort responsibility so that it seems as though the victim is at fault for his or her own death. considered legal. however. state agents who commit mass violence make every effort to disguise their actions. which includes people killed by police and corrections officers. The Arrest-Related Deaths program (ARD) was created by the Bureau of Justice Statistics to do this. including members of Congress. or did it omit victims? . the SHR only includes homicides committed by police that in the judgment of the police department or the local FBI have been justified. Was this database complete. or because their rules of engagement permit them to use deadly force whenever they feel their lives are threatened. They influence coroners to describe the killings as accidents. the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) decided to conduct an assessment of the coverage of the Arrest-Related Deaths database. In other incidents. requiring the Department of Justice to maintain a list of people killed by police in the United States. Crucially. And in many cases. that is. the reason we consent to the existence of armed forces in our midst is precisely to keep us safe from these threats. After all. Furthermore. the rebellious and the criminal. Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2000. Many people. The question Americans face is therefore at what point the violence committed by our protectors exceeds the violence we might suffer from the people they claim to be protecting us against? The FBI maintains a list of homicides called the Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR). After several years. Victims are afraid of retaliation and so they explain the deaths in other ways. have asked the larger question: How many people in total are killed by the police in the United States every year? Seeking an answer. The families of victims rightly recognize that to accuse a police or military officer of murder puts themselves and their family members directly in the path of well-resourced and sometimes violent adversaries who may be above the law.It is difficult to collect information about violence committed by governments. the police have killed people by accident. police and military officials are keeping the peace and protecting innocents from the violent.

for help with this statistical evaluation. the two lists are encircled by a large cloud of smoke – think of this as the ‘universe’ of total deaths. a North Carolina- based statistics think tank. The balls have the curious property that when they strike each other. The report considers homicides committed by police within the years 2003–2009 and 2011 (2010 was omitted). Here is an analogy for how this statistical technique works. and this is an important insight. and we want to know which of the two is larger. click. The left circle shows the number of deaths documented in the Arrest-Related Deaths database. so the balls have less room to bounce around. they make a distinctive clicking noise. throw them into the first room and listen – click. click. Our only tool for assessing the rooms’ sizes is a handful of small rubber balls. The cloud refers to the total number of police homicides that can be ‘statistically inferred’ to exist. Which room is larger? The second room is larger. Then we gather the balls and throw them into the second room – click. Notice that in the Venn diagram. The overlapping section in the middle – the intersection of the two lists – shows the number of deaths on both lists. It turns out that there is a statistical technique specifically designed for data of this kind – using multiple. The Bureau of Justice Statistics turned to Research Triangle Incorporated. and which are individually and in sum incomplete. and they therefore hit each other more often. We can use some probability theory and algebra to estimate the number of deaths not on the lists. which includes the deaths that are not on the ARD or SHR lists.The BJS faced the same problem looking at the victims of police homicides in the United States that the global human rights community faces when we try to figure out how many people have been killed in Syria’s civil war: we have a number of lists which partially overlap. . the cloud includes deaths that are not observed by these projects. how often they document the same victims. That is. They first asked how much the two databases overlap. The smaller room forces the balls together more closely than the larger room. Imagine that there are two rooms. We take the rubber balls. independently collected lists – that can create good estimates of how many people are not on the lists. They issued a report published in March 2015 that compared the Arrest-Related Deaths database with the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report. and the right circle shows the deaths documented by the Supplementary Homicide Report. that is.

but it can be improved considerably. and that a death is documented by these two lists. In my opinion. let’s dive into the technical bits. like how many widgets our factory shipped last year. or only slightly? If we have a measure that systematically undercounts something (statisticians would call this bias). But here’s where we can really get some leverage. Here’s the math behind measuring undocumented police homicides: there is a total number of homicides committed by police in the United States. The uppercase N represents all the deaths in the cloud. that is. this is the real purpose of statistics. it equals the probability of the first head multiplied by the probability of the second head. Remember that we know the number of people on both lists (M). is the undercount minimal. If we have a measure that we know to be imprecise. or is it severe? Can we correct the bias? These are the kinds of questions that statistics can answer. M divided by N. the list of deaths documented and known by the FBI in the Supplementary Homicide Report – call this B. this probability is also equal to the probability of being on the first list (which we defined as A/N) multiplied by the probability of being on the second list (which is B/N). It turns out that the ratio of the sizes of the individual databases to the number of times they collide can provide an estimate of the total number of police homicides in the US – including those that have not been observed. To understand how this works. We often use simple statistics that just count things. In this case. the probability of a flip coming up heads is one over two. the estimate made by the Bureau of Justice Statistics is much closer to the likely true number of homicides committed by police than the raw data. denoted by an uppercase N. As with the probability of two heads in a coin toss. and the number of deaths known in both databases – we’ll call this M. how imprecise is it: wildly. Applying this logic to the lists is essentially the same. so the probability of being documented by both lists is M/N. and known in the Arrest-Related Deaths database – call this number A. . What we do know is the number of deaths listed. Let’s think about tossing coins: with one coin. that a death in N is documented by the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report is B divided by N. The probability that any given death in N is documented by the Arrest-Related Deaths database is A divided by N. But statistics is much more useful when it enables us to know something about uncertainty. If I flip two coins. the probability that I’ve thrown two heads is one over four.What the BJS analysts have done in their report is akin to throwing the two databases into the ‘room’ of all police homicides in the United States. documented. but we don’t know what it is.

they veer toward each other. they estimate that in addition to the homicides documented by the Arrest-Related Deaths database and the Supplemental Homicide Report. N. It was a striking admission of the weakness of the federal bureaucracy with respect to recalcitrant local law enforcement officials who refuse to publicly share the most basic facts about potential abuses. We would inaccurately infer that the room is smaller than in fact it really is. There is an assumption hidden in that idea: that the balls travel freely through the air in the rooms. the balls hit each other less frequently. The Bureau of Justice Statistics released their report in March 2015.103 victims were killed by police in the United States during the period 2003 through 2009 and 2011 (excluding 2010). B and M. we would hear many more clicks than we would if the balls were flying around without attracting each other. Pundits and politicians were reminded that even the federal government doesn’t know how many people in America are killed by police. That is. But what if this assumption isn’t true? What if. This is what happened with the Bureau of Justice Statistics report. This is one way that statistics illuminates uncertainty: it provides a model based in probability theory to tell us what we don’t know. for example. bounce against each other. or the number of victims listed in the Arrest- Related Deaths database multiplied by the number of victims listed in the Supplementary Homicide Report divided by the number of victims recorded in both. . we need to return to the metaphor of the rubber balls used to measure the size of different rooms. an additional 2. Our best estimate of N – the total universe of homicides – is therefore AB/M. that means we can solve for N. we can say that M/N = A/N x B/N. some of the balls tend to be attracted to each other. the reality is even worse.427. so that when they are nearby. This is an equation with one unknown. Remember that we were able to estimate the relative sizes of the rooms because in the larger room. because we know A. This is what the Bureau of Justice Statistics analysts have done to estimate the total number of police homicides as 7. But as bad as the news of this report was. and create a click? If this were true. and it created a media tizzy.From this. To understand why.

and is from a social network of people fearful of retaliation by police. local police may know that they don’t have to report this to the FBI. including our study of genocide in Guatemala’s armed internal conflict. or when a person is killed by police in front of bystanders taking videos on phones. killings in Perú’s civil war. the police are very likely to report this case to the FBI because they know the FBI will hear about it. Conversely. In statistical terms. homicides and lethal violence more generally in Colombia’s civil conflict. But if one source overlooks a killing. this is called ‘list dependence. the media tend to report about this event very thoroughly. In these projects.’ and there are decades of research done by mathematical statisticians that help correct estimates by measuring the strength of the attraction among the balls. For the same reasons. These cases are like the balls that tend to attract each other. this person’s death might also remain undocumented by local media. our estimate of total deaths (N) is too small. These two examples show that if one source reports a given killing. we are acutely sensitive to the problem we have here. In circumstances like these. This is the kind of killing that is unlikely to be reported at all. ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. One result of this correlation is that our equation for estimating the total deaths – AB/M – is inaccurate because M is too large. the other source is similarly likely to overlook it. instead many balls are drawn together and strike each other more frequently than expected. The balls are not traveling freely through the room and striking each other only when they cross paths. And if the intersection of our Venn diagram (M) is too large. the other source is also likely to report it. if a person is killed by police without the presence of witnesses.When a middle-class person is killed by police. This is a standard problem with this statistical approach. . and we have calculated variations of this math in many contexts. In statistical language. and killings in Syria’s ongoing war. we say that the probability of reporting (or not) to the FBI – and therefore by the Supplementary Homicide Report – is positively correlated with the probability of reporting (or not) by the media or other sources recorded in the Arrest-Related Deaths database.

We have only two lists. or more lists. the larger the range of observed correlations. the estimate would be a bit less than 10. titled ‘Estimates of Total Deaths by Country’s List Dependence.427 total police homicides.000. In all our previous work in other countries. we can draw an insight to what the correlation between the sources in the United States might look like. Remember. we could calculate what the correlations were between all the pairs of lists in each country. So we asked ourselves: what is the usual range for correlations in similar scenarios? The answer is shown in the graph below. the estimate would be a bit more than 10. we can measure the attraction between any pair of lists. four. . The higher the number at the bottom. What my colleague Dr Kristian Lum and I did is to ask: what are these two lists? One is a list maintained by police. And with a possible correlation. we used three.One way to understand this is that if we have three or more lists. Let’s turn to the second graph.’ The range shows the correlations we have found among many pairs of lists of homicides in five countries. We’ve used lists like this before. how much would the estimate increase? The bars in this graph show the range of estimated homicides if the correlation for the US sources were like the ranges we’ve found in the countries listed in the left-hand column. the higher the correlation. Many times. With three or more lists. But with the countries listed in this graph.000 US police homicides. Many. If the US correlation were like the correlations among sources in Colombia. five. With two lists we have no way to know what the correlation between the lists might be. If we take into consideration the correlation between the two lists (that is. If the US correlation were like the correlations among sources in Kosovo. the correlations are just numbers. The wider the bar. we can adjust the estimate of US police homicides accordingly. many times. the attraction among the balls thrown into the room). The lines extend left and right showing the most extreme values. The other is a list of people reported in the media. and consequently we can’t measure the correlation.’ This graph modifies the estimate of total police homicides given by the Bureau of Justice Statistics by asking the question: what would their estimate look like if the correlation between the two lists we have were like the correlations found among lists in these other countries? The BJS estimated 7. we can measure the attraction among the balls directly. And so forth. titled ‘Estimated Pairwise List Dependence. though. and because we used three or more lists. We don’t know the correlation between the Arrest-Related Deaths database and the Supplementary Homicide Report. and then account for that attraction to arrive at a much more accurate estimate.

the estimate of 1. Using the correlations from these lists. We fear that our children will be abducted by strangers. police and media lists. and that serial killers will stalk us on dark streets. and the largest single category of strangers who threaten us. these threats constitute less than three per cent of total annual homicides in the US. that is. The question for Americans is whether we will continue to tolerate police violence at this scale in return for protection against the quantitatively less likely threats. my best guess of the number of police homicides in the United States is about 1. that is. All of these risks are real. Of all American homicide victims killed by people they don’t know.[9] The numerically greater threat to our safety. And the range of correlations that are most informative for our investigation are those in Colombia. and good databases maintained by human rights groups of homicides reported in the press. that terrorists will gun us down or blow up our buildings. where there is a very effective police reporting database. Keep in mind that the Bureau of Justice Statistics report itself excludes many jurisdictions in the United States that openly refuse to share any data with the FBI.To understand the impact of the correlation between one list organized by the police – like the Supplementary Homicide Report – and another list organized from media sources – like the Arrest-Related Deaths database – it’s most useful to compare them to other cases where we have similar kinds of lists.500 police homicides per year would mean that eight to ten per cent of all American homicide victims are killed by the police. approximately one-third of them are victims of the police. it is likely that there were approximately 10. America is a land ruled by fear.000 homicides committed by the police. .500 per year. we conclude that for the eight-year period included in the study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The true number of homicides committed by police is therefore even higher. about 1.250 per year. As I said at the beginning of this article. Though not a true estimate. that crazed gunmen will perpetrate mass killings in our schools and theaters. but they are minuscule in probability: taken together. are the people we have empowered to use deadly force to protect us from these less probable threats.