The ACLU of Southern California has been working to understand how many people have been killed by law enforcement in America’s most populous state. What they found is alarming. Over a six-year period that ended in 2014, California’s Department of Justice recorded 610 instances of law enforcement committing homicide “in the process of arrest.”
That figure is far from perfect. It excludes some homicides in 2014 that are still being investigated. And it understates the actual number of people killed by police officers and sheriffs deputies in other ways. For example, after Dante Parker was mistaken for a criminal, stunned with a Taser at least 25 times, hog-tied face down, and denied medical care, California authorities classified his death as “accidental.”
Still, the official number is 610 homicides attributed to law enforcement “in the process of arrest.”
Officially, 608 are classified as justified. Just two are officially considered unjustified. In one unjustified killing, there’s video of a policeman shooting Oscar Grant in the head as he lay face down in a BART station. In the other, there is extended video of police brutally beating a mentally ill man, Kelly Thomas, to death.
Officially speaking, only police officers who were being filmed killed people in unjustified ways. Whether law enforcement performs less professionally when cameras are rolling is unclear. But it seems more likely that the spread of digital-recording technology will reveal that unjust killings are more common than was previously thought.
The ACLU got the data on killings through a public-records request. The 610 police homicides that the state recorded exclude deaths ruled “accidental” or “natural,” suicides, killings still under investigation, and cases where cause of death is undetermined.
The civil-liberties organization found that 598 of the 610 people were shot to death. Here’s a breakdown:
The ACLU’s analysis also probed where the killings took place. In raw numbers, Los Angeles County led the state in police killings with 194. The LAPD killed 87 people, while the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department killed 55 people—32 in its primary jurisdiction, and 23 more in jurisdictions that contract with it for policing services. An argument could be made that improvements to policing in L.A. County would save the most lives.
On the other hand, police in Kern County killed the most people per capita: 3.54 people for every 100,000 residents. Butte County law enforcement killed 7 people, or 3.1 for every 100,000 residents. And police in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties killed 58 and 63 people respectively, both at a rate of roughly 2.7 people per 100,000 residents. That could indicate inferior policing practices in those counties.
Here are the police killing figures for some of California’s most populous counties:
Are police in San Diego, San Francisco, and Fresno counties doing something right, or is their lower rate of killing people attributable to other factors? If other counties could achieve the lowest rate, a significant number of lives could be spared.
Here are the years when the 610 killings took place. Notice that at least part of the variance seems to be explained by something other than the overall homicide rate:
2009 — 86 killings (in a year with 1,970 total homicides)
2010 — 76 killings (in a year with 1,809 total homicides)
2011 — 108 killings (in a year with 1,794 total homicides)
2012 — 131 killings (in a year with 1,878 total homicides)
2013 — 127 killings (in a year with 1,745 total homicides)
2014 — 82 killings (in a year with 1,697 total homicides)
Again, the 2014 number is likely to rise as investigations are concluded and cases shift in the state database from “unknown” cause of death to death by “homicide.”
How does California stack up against other countries?
Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post observes that “there were no fatal police shootings in Great Britain last year. Not one. In Germany, there have been eight police killings over the past two years. In Canada—a country with its own frontier ethos and no great aversion to firearms—police shootings average about a dozen a year.”
It is also useful to juxtapose these numbers with The Guardian’s findings in its effort to track all police killings in the United States this year. After just ten months, it has documented 149 people killed by law enforcement in California during 2015, another indication that the official California figures are too low. The Guardian counts “any deaths arising directly from encounters with law enforcement. This will inevitably include, but will likely not be limited to, people who were shot, tasered and struck by police vehicles as well those who died in police custody.”
It does not count “self-inflicted deaths during encounters with law enforcement. For instance, a person who died by crashing his or her vehicle into an oncoming car while fleeing from police at high speed is not regarded by the Guardian’s database to have been killed by law enforcement. The database does not include suicides or self-inflicted deaths including drug overdoses in police custody or detention facilities.”
It ranks California as the 10th deadliest state.
Elsewhere, California’s attorney general has published some data on police killings from 2005 to 2014. That analysis states the following about the race of 1,202 people killed:
Blacks accounted for approximately 21 percent of arrest-related deaths, 6 percent of the state's resident population, and 17 percent of the arrest population. When compared to the state population, Blacks accounted for arrest-related deaths at a rate that was 3.59 greater than expected (21 percent divided by 6 percent). Using the arrest population as a benchmark, this ratio drops to 1.26. Much of the disproportionate representation was therefore attributed to the relatively high arrest rate for Blacks.
No other racial/ethnic group was notably overrepresented.
According to the state’s figures for 2013, “49.3 percent of homicide arrestees were Hispanic, 24.9 percent were black, 20.0 percent were white, and 5.8 percent were categorized as ‘other.’”
All of these numbers raise as many questions as they answer. But putting them before researchers, legislators, and the public is a first step toward better understanding why police officers in the United States––and in California, specifically––kill so many more people than their counterparts in other Western democracies.
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