With mystery still surrounding the recent deaths of two unarmed African American men, Eric Garner (who died from complications after being placed in a choke-hold), and Michael Brown (who was shot six times), protesters have called police methods into question, as the number of police killings that are unjustified remains uncounted.
“Excessive force” is a phrase that has gotten a lot of attention in the past few weeks, particularly in the case of Marlene Pinnock, who was stopped by an officer on the freeway in July, taken to the ground and punched repeatedly in the head. A passenger riding in the car of his friend happened to catch the footage on his phone’s camera. (The officer in question has since been removed from duty with paid administrative leave.) To try to define “excessive force” is difficult, primarily because it is based on an officer’s judgment and there is no clear cut definition. However, as many citizens have gathered across the nation in an attempt to find answers, or an understanding concerning the deaths of Brown and Garner, other words are beginning to surface. Some such words are “justifiable” and “unjustifiable.”
Unjustified killings concerning law enforcement are investigated, as the FBI writes an annual Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR), and there are an estimated 400 yearly justifiable police homicides since 2008, but others from this number are still left uncounted. David Klinger, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri, specializes in policing as it pertains to the use of deadly force. Klinger recently went on record to say, “There is no true governmental effort whatsoever to record the number of unjustifiable homicides by law enforcement.” If this is the case, then that means if Brown’s or Garner’s homicide is found to be unjustifiable, it may not show up in the statistics. Klinger continued, “Nobody that knows anything about the SHR puts credence in the numbers that they call justifiable homicides.”
One of the FBI’s programs that compile the SHR is a program called Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR). The UCR relies heavily on the voluntary involvement of state and local law enforcement agencies, but some have claimed that this accountability can leave room for speculation. USA Today notes in its data that of the nation’s 17,000-plus law enforcement agencies, only 750 contribute any data to the FBI’s justifiable homicide database.
Senior researcher of Human Rights Watch, Allyson Collins, wrote an article on police brutality in the U.S. In it, she states that “the Justice Department receives over 12,000 complaints each year of law enforcement abuse.” On average, around 50 or so result in convictions. “Law enforcement officers are human too, same as citizens, but you simply cannot have officers acting too much like the suspects they are trying to apprehend,” Collins says.
If the legality of an officer’s homicide is ever called into question, it will most likely not be reported to the FBI’s SHR database until after the investigation is complete, which could take several months or even longer. With the number of Americans who believe police officers are generally not held accountable for unjustified killings at nearly 50 percent, according to a Reason-Rupe poll published in April of 2014, it appears that those with uncounted questions are still left with no clear answer.
By Theodore Borders