Since protesters rose up in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of Michael Brown, cops in America have killed more than 2,000 people.
The count comes from Fatal Encounters, a nonprofit that’s tracked police shootings by collecting reports from the media, public, and law enforcement and verifying them through news reports. Some of the data is incomplete, with details about a victim’s race, age, and other factors sometimes missing. It also includes killings that were potentially legally justified, and is likely missing some killings entirely.
The project, similar to others maintained by the Guardian and Washington Post, is necessary due to a massive gap in the information we have about police shootings in America. The FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics are each supposed to track police killings. But a 2015 study by RTI International found that each agency misses nearly half of police killings in the US, and together they still miss more than one quarter.
Fatal Encounters seeks to remedy our gap in knowledge as police shootings — and the vast racial disparities behind them — get more attention in the news. For this story, we’ve pulled some of that data to break down the demographics of this population and some of their personal information.
In raw numbers, it is true that more white people are killed by police than any other race: About 50 percent of all victims of a known race are white, whereas white Americans make up about 62 percent of the US population.
But the numbers show black people are disproportionately likely to be killed. Although they make up about 13 percent of the US population, they make up 29 percent of Fatal Encounters' police shooting victims of a known race.
Some of the disparities are explained by higher crime in black communities, which makes police more likely to be active in black people’s neighborhoods. But not all: A 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found, “There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.” That suggests that other factors — such as, potentially, racial bias — are involved in the racial disparities seen for these shootings.
Men, too, are disproportionate victims of police shootings: about 95 percent.
This is largely explained by differences in crime rates: Although men make up nearly half of the population, they made up about 73 percent of those arrested for all crimes and more than 85 percent of those arrested for murder and robbery in 2014, according to FBI data. Since police are interacting with men more often, it’s more likely that a situation will escalate out of control into a shooting.
Children and adolescents are very unlikely to be the victims of police shootings. Although they make up nearly 23 percent of the population, they make up 2 percent of police shooting victims.
The biggest victims of police shootings, instead, tend to be younger adults — about 48 percent of police victims are between the ages of 18 and 34. Once again, this mostly reflects who commits crime: This age group made up about 45 percent of those arrested for crime in 2013, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis. These are the people that police are most likely to interact with — and therefore more likely to end up in a violent confrontation with.
Fatal Encounters has tracked police shootings for a long time. As the organization explains, its database helps fill a big gap in our knowledge about the people shot and killed by police each year — because no federal agency was doing an adequate job tracking this death toll. (The federal government has since said it will try to step up its efforts.)
Why is this important? For one, the racial disparities in the shootings are alarming — helping give a rise to the Black Lives Matter movement over the past couple years after several police killings triggered national media attention, protests, and, in very rare occasions, even riots. The disparities have been well-known by the black community for generations, but it’s only recently that the issue has picked up more traction — driving an increased need for comprehensive databases like Fatal Encounter’s.
Beyond the racial disparities, it also seems like America has an outsized problem with police use of force. In other developed countries like the UK, Japan, and Germany, police can go an entire year without ever shooting and killing someone. This isn’t explained solely by population. It might be explained, at least in part, by America’s extraordinary levels of gun violence — for example, the US has 16 times the gun homicide rate as Germany, according to UN data compiled by the Guardian. But it also might suggest that police are simply far too quick to use deadly force in the US.
Whatever the cause, it’s important to get the data out there so the public and researchers have a better grasp of the issue.
Due to the nature of Fatal Encounter's data collection methods, there may be some errors. Contact us if you have any more information about the shootings and victims.
Below you’ll see the name, age, and location of death of every police shooting victim we know about since August 9, 2014, in reverse chronological order.