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DOJ: More Police-Involved Fatal Shootings Than Reported

There have already been fatal officer-involved shootings in DuPage County and Chicago since 2017 began. (chicagopd.org)
There have already been fatal officer-involved shootings in DuPage County and Chicago since 2017 began. (chicagopd.org)
January 6, 2017

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Police officers have the legal authority to take lives, but keeping tabs on how many people are killed each year hasn't been easy. Brandon Patterson, a reporter for the news organization Mother Jones, broke down new Department of Justice data, which show police-related fatalities in the United States are significantly higher than earlier estimates.

Just a few days into 2017, there have been two fatal shootings by police officers in Illinois. Trevon Johnson, 17, was shot Monday by a DuPage County sheriff's deputy during an altercation after a domestic disturbance call. An unarmed 38-year-old man was fatally shot on the same day in a Chicago neighborhood; the officer has since been stripped of police power.

"This new DOJ number is the fullest - I won't say complete because it is an estimate - but the fullest, and likely the most accurate, estimate that we have at this point of how many of these deaths occur every year," Patterson said.

After searching through media reports and other sources, the DOJ has estimated that 1,900 people died during a police encounter in the 12 months ending in May 2016. In 2014, police departments reported only 444 police shootings to the FBI.

The Death in Custody Reporting Act, passed by Congress in 2000, requires police departments to report deaths, and agencies that don't comply can lose 10 percent of their federal funding. However, Patterson noted that Congress only added an enforcement component to the law in 2014.

"Essentially," he said, "the number was significantly lower than the new estimate because law enforcement agencies simply were ignoring the reporting mandate because there were no consequences under the old law."

Patterson said it remains unclear if the reporting act will be enforced after President Obama leaves office.

"Both (President-elect Donald) Trump and his pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have been critical of the Department of Justice's involvement in local policing issues, and have indicated that they would sort of pull back on that under a Trump administration."

The lack of good data got national attention when Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. The Guardian and The Washington Post responded by making independent counts, in a process similar to the one adopted by the Justice Department.

The DOJ report is online at bjs.gov and the Mother Jones report is at motherjones.com.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - IL