Half of Police Homicides are Justified – A Data Analysis

Analysis of all 2019 US police homicides indicates that half are not justified – over 500 individuals per year die unnecessarily at the hands of police.

In 2019, police in the United States killed 1,099 people – and US police are tracking toward 1150 for all of 2020 [1]. While there is no uniform government database for police homicides in the United States, non-profit efforts like Mapping Police Violence have emerged to track the issue. While great work has been done collecting data, I’ve seen no analysis as to whether the homicides are justified. At one extreme, police unions argue that the police are always right – they believe that police homicides have a nearly 100% justified rate. BLM protesters and others argue the opposite – but where does the truth lie? If all police violence were justified, then there’s no reason for concern. As hundreds of videos and photos now show, it appears that the fraction is much lower – necessitating this analysis.

I analyzed fifty 2019 police homicides by hand, reading media reports, reviewing video evidence, and reading police reports. All 1,099 police homicides in 2019 were then analyzed using an automated approach – see the spreadsheet at bottom for the full details [2]. I used calendar year 2019 data, and manually scored 50 homicides using a list of rules as follows:

Rules Used in Manual Scoring: (51% of police homicides determined to be justified using these rules)

  1. Was the deceased provably (video, non-police witnesses) attacking officers or a victim with a firearm? If so, set to 100% justified
  2. Did the deceased kill anyone else prior to or during police intervention?
    If so, set to 100% to justified
  3. Was the deceased armed with a firearm or knife? If so, add 25% to the probability. (Cars, tools, and other implements are not counted here)
  4. According to the police, was the deceased threatening the police or a victim with a weapon? Is so, add 25% to the probability.
  5. According to non-police witnesses or footage, was the deceased threatening the police or a victim with a weapon? If so, add 25% to the probability
  6. Was the deceased shot in the back, while running away, or while driving away? If so, set the probability to 0%. (Shooting at drivers in cars has been proven to be extremely dangerous to the public and to officers, and is outlawed in many countries)

For the automated data analysis, I used only data available within the Mapping Police Violence spreadsheet.

Rules Used in Automated Scoring: (54% of police homicides determined to be justified using these rules, with all data per police reports)

  1. Was the deceased armed in any fashion? If so, add 25% to the probability.
  2. Was the alleged weapon a firearm? If so, add 25% to the probability.
  3. Was the deceased attacking the police or others at the moment they used lethal force? If so, add 25% to the probability.
  4. Was the deceased holding their ground and not fleeing? If so, add 25% to the probability.
  5. Was the deceased fleeing at the moment the police used lethal force, whether by car, foot, or other means? If so, subtract 25% from the probability.
  6. Did the deceased exhibit symptoms of mental illness? If so, subtract 25% from the probability.

Both analyses show that roughly half of all police homicides were found to be justified. When reading through and scoring individual homicides, I noted a wide range of cases ranging from truly heroic action to absurd and ridiculous [3]:

  • Heroic: Killing active assailants engaged in firing on officers or the public
  • Dubious: Shooting suspects in the back or in a car while they were trying to run away or drive away, even when they posed no threat
  • Absurd: A mentally ill person called 911 too many times, resulting in 911 dispatching officers to arrest him for excess calling, leading to his death unarmed and in his own home, after struggling with police

If half of all police homicides are not justified, then police are responsible for over 500 preventable deaths per year. This result cries out for change, even before potential racial inequities are studied! For those who think the police deserve the benefit of the doubt – the numbers indicate that the problem is real, and needs real attention. For those who think the police are always wrong – there are hundreds of instances in 2019 where the police rightly used lethal force. As usual in America these days, the solution is not binary – we need to acknowledge this and take reform seriously, but not to absurdity.

[1] Through August 24th 2020, policed had killed 751 people, according to Mapping Police Violence – that’s through the first 237 days of the year. Multiplying by 365 / 237 to normalize for a full year yields a rate of 1157 homicides per year for 2020 thus far.

[3] It’s important to note that the vast majority of the data for this analysis comes directly from the police. By 2019 anti-police violence protests movements had already gained traction across much of the country, leading police departments to proactively provide evidence when shootings are justified. When a police department refuses to comment or provide evidence on a shooting, the innocent-until-proven-guilty standard should be applied, meaning that the justification percentage is 0% in the absence of evidence.

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