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Shootings by police vastly underreported in Utah and nationally

First Published      Last Updated Jan 04 2015 03:46 pm

Deadly force » No one knows if it’s a growing problem because the statistics aren’t available.

Body cameras. De-escalation training. Civilian oversight.

These are some of the strategies proposed by police watchdogs and policy advocates in response to months of controversy, nationwide and in Utah, about shootings by police.

But nobody can say whether deadly force is actually on the rise — or measure, beyond individual departments, whether a given policy change reduces fatal encounters with law enforcement.

That's because, bottom line, no one knows how many people are shot by police.

"It is the most awesome power that the state possesses," said David Klinger, professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "For citizens not to know how often the state kills them, or shoots them and they survive, or shoots and misses — how are we supposed to monitor and judge the appropriateness of the conduct of state agents if we don't know how often they do something?"

Federal efforts to collect data have produced inaccurate results.

The FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report gathers nationwide crime statistics from more than 18,000 police agencies, representing 98 percent of the U.S. population. But police agencies often do not submit the supplementary information that shows the number of people killed by police in justifiable homicides.

Most Utah agencies did not report officer-involved homicides, and those agencies that did vastly underreported them.

From 2007 to 2012, the most recent year for which full FBI stats are available, Utah police agencies reported 18 justifiable homicides by law enforcement. However, The Salt Lake Tribune has identified 59 homicides by law enforcement officers, deemed justified by prosecutors, during that time period. A Tribune review from 2010 through 2014 showed police use of force is the second leading contributor to the state's homicide tally, topped only by domestic violence.

The paper's findings of underreporting are borne out by other reviews of FBI data. The Wall Street Journal recently gathered internal data on homicides by police during the same time period from 105 of the nation's largest departments and found that more than 500 of at least 1,800 police killings were missing from the FBI tally.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks "legal intervention" deaths, using death certificates and autopsy findings. But experts long have considered the totals to be incomplete because medical examiners may not always note police involvement on death certificates.

In yet another federal effort to count deaths at the hands of law enforcement, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) called on states to report use-of-force fatalities as part of its "Arrest-Related Deaths" program, launched in 2003. Utah's tally was more accurate in this report than in the FBI data, accounting for 49 use-of-force homicides of 53 identified by The Tribune from 2003 to 2009. The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice gathered and submitted the figures for the BJS report, but rather than relying on police agencies to volunteer information, the commission culled media reports and contacted police for background details, said Ben Peterson, director of research for the CCJJ.

But when an audit found too many deaths missing in the BJS national data, the program was discontinued, said Andrea Burch, a statistician for the U.S. Department of Justice. No data after 2009 will be available.

Peterson said that, to his knowledge, the raw numbers submitted by the state to the justice bureau have never been requested by any agency hoping to study the use of deadly force by police in Utah.

Trends & training • That is not to say Utah's police are disinterested in tracking their own use of force. West Jordan police and the Utah Department of Public Safety, in hope of identifying trends and risk factors, have adopted software to log an array of variables when they use any kind of physical force.

If pepper spray is used, for instance, officers must input where they aimed the spray and what its effect was. If a Taser is deployed, they can record where on the subject's body the electrodes landed. Officers may list the duration of a restraint hold; injuries; the size, race, sex and age of a subject; and whether the force was successful in subduing a person.

"Sometimes [force] works, sometimes it doesn't, and sometimes it works and stops working," said West Jordan police spokesman Dan Roberts.

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Tribune online » Fatal shootings database

The Salt Lake Tribune has compiled a database of 87 fatal shootings by law enforcement since 2005. The database at local.sltrib.com/charts/shootings/policeshootings.html names shooting victims and officers, and has narratives of alleged events. Data were gathered from police, prosecutors and media reports; court documents; families of the deceased and open-records requests.