There are two sets of numbers that tell us a lot about the state of policing in America. This week, the FBI released the latest tally of cops killed in the line of duty. The grim toll in 2014 was 51 law enforcement officers who were killed while doing their jobs (the figure does not include those who died in work-related accidents). That’s an 89% rise from the year before, but still below the average of 64 deaths from 1980 to 2014.
We have those comparisons because the FBI database is considered complete and updated every year. What we don’t know is the corollary number: how many people die as a result of encounters with the police. The FBI does compile a list—the latest shows there were 461 suspects killed in 2013 by police officers, up from 397 in 2010—but it is in no way a comprehensive account because the information is provided voluntarily and only some of the nation’s almost 18,000 police departments contribute. Plus, the FBI’s list is short on details and only specifies the type of weapon used in fatal incidents. Numbers compiled by advocacy groups suggest that the number of people killed by police is much higher, although lower than it once was. According to the New York Times, for example, 91 people were shot and killed by police officers in New York City in 1971 compared with eight in 2013, which was a record low.
The lack of a reliable, comprehensive database has become a flashpoint in the debate over policing following a string of high-profile fatal incidents involving white officers and unarmed black men. These deaths have led to sometimes violent protests and a renewed focus on police use of force against minorities. And the public response helped prompt FBI director James Comey to call for better data in a speech on law enforcement and race. “The first step to understanding what is really going on in our communities and in our country is to gather more and better data related to those we arrest, those we confront for breaking the law and jeopardizing public safety, and those who confront us,” Comey said.
As the FBI’s new data on officer deaths shows, those confrontations can sometimes be fatal. The most common incident leading to an officer’s death came from answering a disturbance call (11), followed by involvement in car chases or traffic stops (10) and ambushes (8). Others were killed while involved in investigations, tactical situations or dealing with drug-related issues.
“There are certainly cases in the last year that have been directly related to the rise in tensions between police and minority communities,” says Marquette University criminology professor Meghan Stroshine, referring to incidents like one in New York City in December, in which two NYPD officers were deliberately targeted and shot “execution-style” apparently as retribution for police-related deaths of unarmed black men. “We have some cases clearly that were of a retaliatory nature or in the name of correcting perceived past wrongs.”
Just within the last two weeks, several officers have died on duty. The first NYPD officer to be killed in the line of duty since December died on May 4 after being shot by a gunman in Queens. And last week, two officers in Hattiesburg, Miss., were killed during a traffic stop. Four suspects have been charged.