Who’s policing the police? Why no one tracks police use of deadly force

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The family of Miriam Carey, the 34-year-old woman who was shot to death outside the Capitol a few weeks ago, has asked for a federal investigation into her death.

“A lawyer representing Carey’s family has sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney General claiming police violated Carey’s civil rights and used excessive force,” reports a local Stamford, Conn. outlet, where the slain mother was from.

When D.C. police killed Carey in October, the country was once again thrown into a conversation around the use of deadly force—especially as Carey’s 14-month-old daughter was in the back seat of the vehicle as police fired on it.

That tragedy is the most recent in a series of high-profile cases in which unarmed black suspects have been killed by authorities under controversial circumstances.

Revisiting tragic incidents

In September, after surviving a car accident, former Florida A&M University football player Jonathan Ferrell was shot 10 times and killed by police in North Carolina while seeking help.

News reports tell of many more stories that ended in similar tragedies, such as those of Ramarley Graham, a teen who was killed in his home after fleeing New York City police officers in 2012, and Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., an elderly Whiten Plains, New York resident who was killed by officers dispatched to his home after his medical alert device went off.

Reynaldo Cuevas is another innocent victim whose life was cut short by a police bullet.

All were shot and killed by police officers through what their surviving loved ones believe was excessive force.

Even with the prevalence of such high-profile cases, there is still surprisingly very little official data available regarding the number of people killed by police every year, or how often the use excessive force was suspected.

Little tracking of excessive force accusations

Despite a provision in the 1994 Crime Control Act requiring the collection of this information and the annual publishing of related findings, the U.S. Department of Justice has only released a few sporadic tracking reports.

The data deficit is due to a lack of cooperation from many of the nation’s 18,000 local police departments and the lack of legislation in states needed to mandate it, experts say. As a result, there are no comprehensive figures on how often deaths like those of Carey, Graham, and Ferrell occur.

“Getting data to track these incidents is critical,” says Loyda Colon, co-director of the Justice Committee, a police watchdog organization based in New York City. “For example, we’ve been talking about the issue of Stop and Frisk for years now. The city only started responding, and the public at large was forced to address it, after data came out that illustrated the scale of the problem. Those numbers hit a nerve. They make it real for people.”

The police officer’s dilemma

Why do officers seem to so frequently engage in such behavior when a potential suspect is black? In response to a similar question, in 2002 psychologists at the University of Colorado at Boulder published The Police Officer’s Dilemmaa look at how racial bias impacts decisions to shoot.