Police Killed 1,183 People in 2022. Despite a Viral Claim, That's Not a 'Record High.'
Any unjustified killing by the government demands public attention. But fatal shootings by police used to be much more common.
The last few years have seen a sort of unprecedented interest in ameliorating law enforcement misconduct. It's a noble goal. Achieving it, like any goal, requires an accurate understanding of the scope of the problem.
It seems many do not have that. "'It never stops': killings by US police reach record high in 2022," says The Guardian. "Last Year Was Deadliest Year on Record for Police Violence in the US," reads a headline at Bloomberg.
But that's not reality. And effectively confronting any issue necessitates operating in the real world.
The recent reports are tied to data from Mapping Police Violence, a research group run by activist Samuel Sinyangwe, who tracks deadly law enforcement encounters across the country. The numbers are meticulously compiled, and Sinyangwe found that, in 2022, cops shot and killed 1,183 people. We should want to reduce that number as much as possible. But raw data typically mean very little without background to compare and contextualize. That's especially glaring in this conversation, where people are drawing historical conclusions without invoking history.
Buried in the news is that the record high refers to a sampling spanning less than a decade; the first year available on Sinyangwe's site is 2013, when some activists rightfully insisted that such data be compiled, centralized, and published. Numbers on use of force have always been hard to come by—police departments aren't known for transparency, despite being an arm of the government employed by taxpayers. Yet even with those significant constraints, there's still enough available information to know what should be fairly obvious: Police violence was substantially worse in prior decades, when the public conversation about police abuse and reform was still in its nascent stages.
Let's first look at New York City, which receives outsized attention in the debate around criminal justice issues, both from reformers and nonreformers. From 1970 to 1974*, police shot and killed an average of 62 people per year in a population of 7.5 million people, according to data compiled by Peter Moskos, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. From 2015 to 2021, police shot and killed an average of nine people a year, in a population that has grown to over 8.7 million people.
Skeptics can also look to Los Angeles, where the annual average declined from 30 people killed to 15 (as the population expanded by about one million residents); Philadelphia, which saw a decrease of 18 people killed annually to four; Detroit, where the number went from 26 also to four; and Chicago, which, from the early- to mid-1970s, ranked an unenviable second to New York at 43 people shot and killed yearly by police. Last year, there were eight.
Across the 18 major cities surveyed, there has been a 69 percent drop in fatal police shootings.
But not every police use of force ends in death, and it's important to understand those trends as well. In 1971, for instance, the New York Police Department (NYPD) shot and killed 93 people, according to the data. There were an additional 221 police shootings that were nonfatal, for a total of 314 shootings. In other words, police shot someone almost every day that year. In 2020, that number fell by 300, for a total of 14 people.
It is with this data in mind that I remind you what the above news reports claim: that 2022 was "the deadliest year on record for police violence." There is no world in which that is true.
The numbers shouldn't be surprising. Although police departments sometimes vociferously resist reform efforts, fundamental changes were implemented over the last several decades in response to public pressure. There's the low-hanging fruit: improved selection standards, more rigorous training, the establishment of civilian complaint review boards, etc. But there are also more granular examples: "Simply counting bullets when you fire your gun…that sounds so obvious now," says Moskos. "Making cops fill out a form when they fire a gun is going to reduce shootings." But it wasn't always obvious.
Something else that wasn't always obvious, unfortunately, is that police should not shoot suspects who are running away from them. "Where the suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others," Associate Justice Byron White of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote, "the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not justify the use of deadly force to do so." White penned that as a part of his majority opinion in Tennessee v. Garner, which came down in 1985. These are positive changes. But we are supposed to believe the height of police violence is somehow after those were integrated.
It's nearly impossible to parse through every killing every year and know which were justified and which weren't. It should go without saying that some were justified: A cop is indeed supposed to shoot someone when that person is, for example, about to stab a victim. But any unjustified government killing, and misconduct in general, demands the public's attention, not only in terms of prevention but also accountability.
It's a cause I have written in support of at great length. Doctrines like qualified immunity, for example, make it difficult for victims to seek recourse when their rights are violated by the government. It's why a woman could not sue for damages after police shot her 10-year-old son and why an elderly man could bring no suit against the state after his home was wrecked in a SWAT raid targeting the wrong house. Public unions defend their members' worst transgressions and similarly block avenues to accountability. That is, after all, the job of a union, though it hits a bit differently when they're representing the monopoly on a public service.
But supporting a cause does not give anyone permission to contort the truth. And if you have to trim the facts to fit the theory, then it's the theory, not the facts, that might require reevaluation.
A steep, decadeslong drop-off in police violence should be good news, no matter where you stand in this debate. It should be good news because fewer people dying is a good thing, and it should be good news because it shows some past reform efforts worked and can be learned from. It doesn't mean there isn't more work to be done.
But good news carries little currency in the current political climate. Positive developments are inconvenient when it comes to galvanizing support for your cause or getting clicks on the internet.
That's the hard thing about activism. The end-goal is supposed to be a better, safer, freer world. But if you have to rewrite reality in service of that activism, the end-goal may be the activism itself.
*CORRECTION: This article has been modified to clarify the source of the police shooting and killing data.