Hit & Run

Violence by Americans Is Down, Unless Those Americans Happen to Be Police Officers

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Don't text and drive, or this may happen to you.
Credit: Photographerlondon | Dreamstime.com

Earlier in the week, Jesse Walker noted that the latest crime numbers from the FBI show both violent and non-violent crimes declined for 2013, continuing an overall trend briefly interrupted by a small uptick in 2012.

But as part of that report, the FBI also analyzed fatal police shootings that are ruled justifiable. Based on those numbers, you'd think we were all living in Detroit. Americans are often mistaken in their beliefs that crime is on the rise. But for anybody noticing all the reports about police shooting and killing citizens and thinking this is happening more frequently: You are correct. According to the FBI, police have reached a two-decade high in fatally shooting suspects. Law enforcement officers killed 461 people in 2013. It's the third year in a row that fatal shootings by police have increased.

Actually, a correction: We are seeing an increase in the number of killings by police reported to the FBI. The numbers are both self-reported and incomplete. We don't necessarily have a true, accurate count of how many people have died at the hands of police when those deaths aren't counted as crimes. From USA Today:

Criminal justice analysts said the inherent limitations of the database — the killings are self-reported by law enforcement, and not all police agencies participate in the annual counts — continue to frustrate efforts to identify the universe of lethal force incidents involving police.

University of Nebraska criminologist Samuel Walker said the incomplete nature of the data renders the recent spike in such deaths even more difficult to explain.

"It could be as simple as more departments are reporting,'' Walker said.

The Nebraska criminologist has been among the most vocal advocates calling for an all-inclusive national database to closely track deadly force incidents involving police.

"It is irresponsible that we don't have a complete set of numbers,'' Walker said. "Whether the numbers are up, down or stable, this (national database) needs to be done. … This is a scandal.''

A criminologist with the University of South Carolina thinks the actual numbers are higher. He thinks there needs to be a federal mandate for law enforcement agencies to report killings and tie cooperation to eligibility for federal funds. Would that actually make a difference, though?