On Oct. 14, 2019, 12-year-old Akeelah Jackson was returning to her St. Louis home from a Family Dollar store. As she crossed the street, an unidentified St. Louis County police officer was pursuing a traffic violation at 59 mph on a street zoned for 30 mph, according to the St. Louis American.
When the car smashed into the seventh-grade student, the collision broke every bone in her body except for the ones in her feet. On Nov. 12, four weeks after a police car barreled into her, Akeelah Jackson died from injuries sustained in the accident.
Even though the police officer was speeding; even though the cop didn’t turn on his police siren or his police lights, he still hasn’t been charged with Akeelah’s death.
When most organizations tally the number of civilian deaths caused by police in 2019, Akeelah Jackson will not be counted.
On Feb. 17, 2019, 45-year-old Johnathan Liddell pulled into a Douglassville, Ga. Walmart to confront O.L. Jones, who was waiting in the parking lot with a gun in his hand, reports the Marietta Daily Journal. Sitting in his car, Liddell reached into the back seat of the vehicle and Jones fired a single shot into Liddell’s chest, killing him. After shooting Liddell, security cameras captured Jones pulling an airsoft BB gun out of Liddell’s back seat and placing it on top of the car.
O.L. Jones was an off-duty Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and still hasn’t been charged with Liddell’s death
Johnathan Liddell will not be counted.
No one actually knows how many people police kill every year.
The Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” database is the most frequently cited source for police killings because they are one of the few media sources with the resources and dedication to continue the ongoing research. Killed By Police also keeps a database. The Guardian tried it for two years. Bowling Green’s Phillip Stinson had an expansive police crime database that eventually ended. After comparing all of the publicly available data, we determined ... well ... that no one knows how many people police kill each year.
The reason the number remains a mystery is that law enforcement agencies, politicians, lobbyists and the good ol’ NRA have gone to extraordinary measures to prevent government agencies from counting how many people die at the hands of law enforcement agencies. Even when organizations attempt to count the number of people who die in police encounters, the data is sometimes flawed and often incomplete.
For instance, the Washington Post’s database only lists people who were shot and killed by officers, leaving out victims like Akeelah Jackson. They don’t count deaths in police custody; they don’t count people who have died as a result of beatings or tasers or vehicular deaths. Most outlets also don’t include people who died at the hands of off-duty officers, so casualties like Liddell doesn’t appear in the databases.
So we decided to count ourselves.
For the second year in a row, The Root partnered with D. Brian Burghart, the founder of Fatal Encounters—the site whose goal is to create an “impartial, comprehensive, and searchable national database of people killed during interactions with law enforcement”—to see how many people police killed last year.
Like the Washington Post, and Killed By Police, Fatal Encounters’ data comes primarily from media reports. But unlike the previously mentioned sites, Fatal Encounters also counts citizens who were stabbed, tasered, or beaten to death, or otherwise died during a police encounter. Fatal Encounters also includes suicides and people who were killed by suspects during police encounters, but we removed these numbers from our tally.
After comparing the Fatal Encounters dataset to the Post’s we determined that the Post failed to identify 117 deaths that fit Fatal Force’s criteria. The Post’s list also had 13 duplicate entries; three deaths that occurred prior to 2019; two people who died, but weren’t killed by a cop and one person who did not die at all.
Fatal Encounters’ dataset also had mistakes. The errors include three duplicate entries; two people who were not killed, and one death that they completely missed. But FE also listed 117 shootings that fit the Washington Post criteria but were not included in the Washington Post dataset. The total number of people who died during encounters with police, according to Fatal Encounters, totaled 1,777. When we removed suicides, the number fell to 1,531—forty-four fewer deaths than 2018.
And we went a step further.
We also subtracted victims who drowned; people who “fell from a height;” and those who died in car chases while fleeing from cops, and a few who died from non-police-related medical emergencies. We added some officer-involved deaths that did not fit the Washington Post’s criteria, including:
- 10 shootings by off-duty cops
- 21 vehicular deaths
- 6 people who died from asphyxiation or being restrained
- 6 people who died from beatings or bludgeonings
- 5 medical emergencies while in police custody
- 31 taserings
- 1 man (John Watson III) who was shot by police in 2019 but died in 2020.
After we sorted through the data, here are some other startling facts about 2019’s officer-involved killings:
- A black person was three-and-a-half times more likely to be killed by cop than a white person.
- A Hispanic person was one-and-a-half times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a white person
- An unarmed black person was three times more likely to be killed by police than a white person with no weapon
- An unarmed black person fleeing the scene was six times more likely than a white person to be killed by a police officer.
In all, there were 1,112 non-suicide-related deaths at the hands of police in 2019...
There’s a good reason why we don’t know how many Americans die at the hands of law enforcement officers every year:
The police don’t have to tell us.
In 2014, for the first time in history, the Obama administration tasked the FBI with counting how many arrest-related deaths happened that year. When the Bureau of Justice Statistics issued its report, it found that the FBI had been under-reporting the number by an average of 545 deaths per year.
That number was wrong, too.
Since 2015, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) had been trying to pass a piece of legislation. Named after one of his constituents who was infamously shot by police officer Michael Slager, the Walter Scott Notification Act would simply require every law enforcement agency in America to report all police shootings and deaths to the federal government. According to the bill, any state which refused to report would face a 10 percent reduction in federal law enforcement grants and funds. The information required by each state would include:
- The victim’s name, race, age, and sex
- The officer’s name, race, age, and sex
- Whether the victim was armed or not
- A description of the weapon used by law enforcement
- A detailed description of the event
- The finding from law enforcement as to whether the shooting was justified or not
Scott tried to pass the proposal as a standalone bill, to no avail. When he attempted to attach it to funding legislation, it failed. So, in a last-ditch attempt, as the First Step Act worked its way through the Senate in December 2018, Scott attempted to slide his much-needed idea in as an amendment to the groundbreaking criminal reform bill. But police unions whispered in the ears of his fellow legislators and once again, the Walter Scott Notification Act fell by the wayside.
So Tim Scott gave up.
In 2019, for the first time in four years, Tim Scott did not try to introduce the Walter Scott Notification act as an amendment or as a standalone Senate bill.
For now, we must depend on the press to report how many people die at the hands of cops every year. All we know is, it’s more than you think. Even though the most-cited source is increasingly flawed, it’s all we have until America finally solves this problem ...