California Police Killings Database Reveals ‘Clear Racial Disparities’

By Ciara McCarthy & Nadja Popovich

Guardian UK (9/7/15)

Black men have been killed by police in California at eight times the rate of other residents over the past decade, according to records released under the first in a series of new state initiatives to disclose data on the use of deadly force by law enforcement.

Statistics published by California attorney general Kamala Harris stated that about 19% of almost 1,000 homicides by law enforcement recorded between 2005 and 2014 were against African American men, who made up only about 3% of the state’s population.

Harris said last week that “clear racial disparities” had emerged from the figures, which also showed African Americans were arrested and died in custody at disproportionately high rates.

“I’m deeply concerned with what the numbers show,” congresswoman Karen Bass said at a press conference, alongside Harris. “The disproportionality that the [attorney general] referred to is frightening.”

On Wednesday, Harris unveiled a new website containing what she called a “treasure trove of data” on interactions between police and the public. The Open Justice portal includes figures regarding arrest rates, deaths in custody and officers killed or assaulted. This year, several other states have taken action to release more information.

“Instead of designing systems based on some blind adherence to tradition, let’s apply metrics, let’s count what is happening,” Harris said. She later added: “The bottom line is, the people have a right to know what’s going on.”

Gathering the data

Since 2005, police and law enforcement agencies in California have been required to submit to state authorities detailed reports about deaths in custody. But the information was made accessible and searchable for the first time last week.

“This is the first initiative of its kind across the US, to our knowledge,” said Kristin Ford, Harris’s press secretary.

California released its data as Texas also began to mandate the reporting of both fatal and non-fatal shootings by its own law enforcement agencies. A new state law went into effect on Tuesday, requiring local police departments to notify the Texas attorney general every time a law enforcement official injures or kills a civilian in a shooting.

State representative Eric Johnson collaborated with local law enforcement to create legislation focused on aggregating data, said Ana Rodriguez, Johnson’s deputy chief of staff.

“We really thought that if we wanted something to happen right now, states have to really take action to fill that data gap,” Rodriguez said.

The initiatives by America’s two most populous states represent the most significant moves by authorities to address the absence of a full national accounting of the use of deadly force by law enforcement.

At present the federal government does not publish a comprehensive record of people killed by police forces throughout the US. Instead, the FBI runs a voluntary program whereby law enforcement can choose to submit their count of “justifiable homicides” each year.

The lack of data has been sharply criticised by activist groups. President Barack Obama’s White House policing taskforce recommended that it be addressed.

The Guardian is publishing a project, The Counted, to document every person killed by law enforcement in 2015 and the details of how they died. The interactive database is collecting data such as the race and age of those killed, in addition to whether they were armed with a weapon.

In June, US senators Barbara Boxer and Cory Booker introduced legislation that would require states to report to the Justice Department every instance in which police use of force resulted in serious injury or death. The bill is currently in the committee stage.

Maryland and Colorado have passed laws this year requiring local departments to report police use of force. Maryland’s law tracks all fatalities at the hands of police, while Colorado’s monitors every time an officer shoots at a civilian.

These states join Maine, North Carolina and Oregon, which record every police killing. Minnesota police departments must report every time an officer shoots a gun, although the data is not available to the public.

Minorities targeted disproportionately 

According to California’s data, 984 homicides by law enforcement officers in the state were recorded between 2005 and 2014. A homicide by law enforcement staff was defined as “a death at the hands of a law enforcement officer”, including pre- and post-arrest killings.

Within this total, 196 or 19.9% of the people killed were black. According to the state, 5.8% of the population between 2005 and 2013 was black, giving African Americans a death rate – the percentage of homicides per percentage of population – of 3.4.

About 43.8% of people killed in police custody were Hispanic, a group that made up 37.1% of the state’s population during the last nine years, giving a death rate of 1.2.

White people were 30.2% of those killed by police and constituted 41.1% of California’s population, meaning a death rate of 0.7.

The figures mean black people were killed by law enforcement at almost five times the rate of white people and almost three times that of Hispanic people.

All but six of those black people killed were males, who made up 2.9% of the population between 2005 and 2013. The death rate for black males was 6.7 – eight times higher than the 0.8 rate recorded for homicides among everyone else.

Among men only, African Americans were killed at roughly twice the rate of Hispanics and more than four times the rate of white males.

Since 2005, the number of homicides by law enforcement officers has fluctuated. The deadliest years were 2012 and 2013, which recorded 136 and 132 deaths, respectively, according to the data.

Harris said the data also showed African Americans accounted for 17% of total arrests and 25% of all deaths in custody. She also said black boys were arrested at far higher rates than white boys.

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