In his scathing response to Chris Rock's opening monologue at the Oscars, New York Daily News columnist Shaun King made a shocking claim: "[M]ore unarmed African Americans were killed by police in 2015 than in ANY of the previous 88 years of the Oscars. While it may be hard for some to think of our present day problems on that scale, these are the cold, hard facts."
This is a surprising claim for anyone who follows the numbers on police killings, because we simply have no good data on how many people — black or white — are killed by cops each year. A 2015 study found that the Bureau of Justice Statistics's data and the FBI's data each only count about half of police killings, and together they miss about 28 percent of officer-involved killings.
That's why the Washington Post's database on police shootings and the Guardian's database on police killings are so important. They each fill big gaps in our knowledge on this issue.
Still, the data we do have suggests that King's claim — that "more unarmed African Americans were killed by police in 2015 than in ANY of the previous 88 years of the Oscars" — is wrong. According to a 2015 study published by the Harvard Public Health Review, US deaths due to legal interventions — in other words, killings by law enforcement — peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and have dropped since.
Again, it's important to note that this count is likely missing a lot of police killings. But there's a good reason to give this particular finding some validity: During the 1960s and 1970s there was a lot more crime, and the country was embroiled in riots, largely based on racial and social inequality. Those two factors would have, logically speaking, likely pushed up police's use of deadly force.
None of this means we should care any less about police killings. After all, the data in the Harvard Public Health Review still shows a significant racial disparity: Young black men were nearly three times as likely to be killed by police in 2010 than their white counterparts. But one can worry about that racial disparity and acknowledge that the number of police killings perhaps fell over the past few decades, based on the data we do have.
When pressed on his claim on Twitter by Independent Journal politics editor Justin Green, King claimed he was only saying that police killed more people in 2015 than lynchings ever did on a single year. But that's simply not what his column says, and his column's actual claim appears to be wrong or, at the very least, unverified.
Update: The New York Daily News changed the text of the column to say, "Sadly, though, Rock is missing out on the fact that more unarmed African Americans were killed by police in 2015 than were lynched in any single year in the history of the Oscars." This story still reflects the original text of the column, which claimed police shootings of black Americans were at a historical high.