Is Deadly Force by Police on the Rise? We Won't Know Until They Give Us the Stats


Militarized police and the deadly use of force by cops are certainly making headlines in the wake of the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and the homicide-by-NYPD-chokehold death of Eric Garner, but Breitbart.com's Warner Todd Huston thinks both the left and the right are making too much of it:

SWAT on one

It seems to be taken for granted by both the left and the right in America today that incidents of police brutality are growing even as crime itself is falling. But are they? At least one expert says no.

It is certainly a foregone conclusion to the left that police brutality is on the rise. Any look through the world of liberal opinion will find many voices saying that police brutality is growing in America today.

From the right it has also become a favorite theme among libertarians that police brutality is growing, even out of control. The libertarian website Reason.com is constantly publishing stories about America's increasingly militarized police forces and tales of police brutality.

Reason.com has indeed regularly published stories on the growing militarization of police, which include training tactics, the proliferation of war equipment handed over to local police departments by the Department of Defense, and the exponential increase in SWAT team deployments. These are quantifiable facts. 

Less quantifiable is the evidence Huston presents, in the form of a quote from a Wall Street Journal article where John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor, Maria Haberfeld, states, "There is no escalation in the use of deadly force. What we are seeing is a proliferation of cellphones and cameras."

It is perfectly reasonable to suggest the ubiquity of cameras and social media have made the public far more aware of police misconduct and thus helped foster the impression of a growing epidemic of brutality. But neither Huston nor Haberfeld cite any national statistics or study to back up the claim that the use of deadly force is not on the rise, because they can't. There is no national database, nor anything close to resembling one, which details the use of deadly force by police.

Former Reasoner and author of "Rise of the Warrior Cop," Radley Balko, examined why that is in 2012:

Both private police groups and the FBI keep close statistics on the number of cops killed and assaulted while on the job. What you won't see is a slate of stories about the number of citizens killed by police in 2012. Those data just don't exist at a national level. Here's the New York Times, back in 2001:

"Despite widespread public interest and a provision in the 1994 Crime Control Act requiring the attorney general to collect the data and publish an annual report on them, statistics on police shootings and use of nondeadly force continue to be piecemeal products of spotty collection, and are dependent on the cooperation of local police departments. No comprehensive accounting for all the nation's 17,000 police departments exists."

The problem is that while the 1994 law requires federal government to compile data on policing shootings, there's no requirement that police departments actually provide them. And so most don't.

Even if the use deadly force is not increasing, the unwillingness of police departments to provide comprehensive statistics on the use of force increases the perception that it is. 

University of St. Louis criminologist David Klinger, a former cop himself, has argued that greater transparency by police departments regarding the use of deadly force could make for better relations with their communities and sees nothing strange about the public taking special note of the deaths of fellow citizens at the hands of police:

[Americans] are drawn to police shootings not just because they are violent acts but also because they are the most dramatic instance of government doing battle with the bad guys that threaten us. And we are repulsed by them not only because of the damage they inflict but also because they are the ultimate form of government intrusion.