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Cops in one US city killed more people in 5 months than Icelandic police have in 71 years

A police officer in Ferguson.
A police officer in Ferguson.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The Guardian's new project, "The Counted," is trying to track every police killing in the United States in 2015. The project is still gathering data, but has already put together preliminary numbers for the first few months of this year. On Tuesday, Guardian reporter Jamiles Lartey compared the data with similar numbers about police in other countries — and the results were stunning. Not only has the US already had more police killings in five months than most other countries have had in decades, some individual US cities have too.

The comparisons are shocking — even when you account for population

This interactive map shows 5,600 police killings in the US since 2000. (Anand Katakam/Fatal Encounters/Vox)

Here is a sample of some of the most disturbing facts that Lartey's analysis revealed:

  • Police in Stockton, California, killed three times as many people in 2015 as Icelandic police ever have: Stockton has slightly more people than Iceland does. Stockton police killed three people in the first five months of 2015; Icelandic police have only killed one person in the country's entire 71-year history.
  • Police in Pasco, Washington, fired more bullets in one fatal shooting than Finnish police did in all of 2013: There are about 80 times as many people in Finland as there are in Pasco. Finnish police fired six bullets in 2013; Pasco officers fired 17 when they shot and killed Antonio Zambrano-Montes in February 2015. According to investigators, Zambrano-Montes was armed only with a rock.
  • More unarmed black men were killed by police in the US in 2015 than people of any race were killed by German cops in two years: Germany's population is about a fourth of the US's total population, but there are roughly twice as many Germans as there are African Americans. According to the Guardian's data, 19 unarmed black men have been killed by US police in 2015 so far. By contrast, German police shot a total of 15 people, both armed and unarmed, between 2010 and 2011.

America's guns: the real issue?

In any exercise like this, you worry that facts are being cherry-picked to make a point — in this case, that the US has a problem with police shooting. But the aggregate data makes it very clear that the problem is real, as this excellent chart from the Economist shows.

About 127 million people live in Japan, and there were zero police shootings in the last year where data was available. Compare that with 458 in the US, by the Economist's count. It's very, very hard to argue that the number of police killings in the US is anything but abnormal within the developed world.

Why? Well, American police are also dealing a with a country where the homicide rate is a lot higher than in other countries — and where there are a lot more guns floating around. And guns, as Matt Yglesias argues, are a huge part of the police violence problem.

Not only do places with more guns have more homicides (the data is quite clear), but they are also more likely to have heavily armed criminals. That means American police carry weapons to protect themselves, unlike their peers in countries where guns are less available. And that, in turn, makes police more likely to use their guns, including against unarmed civilians.

America's extraordinary gun ownership rate isn't the whole story here. (This country's long history of racial bias and segregation also plays a role, for instance.) But it's a big part of the story, and a window into why the problem of police killings is so difficult to address.