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Ferguson Turns Lens On Police-Involved Killings, But Some Facts Are Few

Aug 21, 2014
Originally published on August 21, 2014 9:30 pm
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Michael Brown is not the only unarmed black man who has been killed by police in the last month. There have been at least three others, and whether that number is complete is hard to confirm. That's 'cause there's no formal database tracking shootings by police. There's plenty of data on crime and even shootings of police, but try to find statistics on police-involved killings, and you'll come up short. Now to explain why that is, we turn to David Klinger. He's an associate professor at the University of Missouri in St. Louis and author of the book "Into The Kill Zone: A Cop's Eye View Of Deadly Force." David Klinger, welcome to the program.

DAVID KLINGER: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So, David Klinger, to begin, there are some federal entities that do collect data, right?


CORNISH: There's tons of crime data out there. Why is it so hard to figure out when police departments are using deadly force and the results of that?

KLINGER: Yeah, the primary data collection mechanism regarding crime and justice issues in the United States is the FBI's uniform crime reports. And they have a program to do, among other things, count the number of homicides by the police - called justifiable homicides by the FBI. And for whatever reason, many police agencies don't report to the FBI when their officers have killed somebody, or they do report and somehow it doesn't get recorded by the FBI. We're not quite sure what's going on.

But all we know is that every time we look at these FBI statistics about justifiable homicides by police and we compare that to a count that we can get internally as researchers in major police departments, the FBI numbers are lower than the numbers we get from the police department.

CORNISH: And I can imagine that means a similar situation for unjustified use of force.

KLINGER: Absolutely, absolutely.

CORNISH: Can you talk about some of the obstacles on the level of police departments themselves? I mean, is there cultural reluctance to be transparent about this?

KLINGER: Unfortunately, I think there is in some places. I've actually heard police executives say that they don't want to have a national reporting system because then people will compare and say, well, you know, this police department shoots more people than that police department. And it'll lead to problems. My argument is report it out. If you have a problem - if your agency is shooting too many people, then do something about it. But if all of your shootings are appropriate, then you have nothing to worry about.

And without getting into the minutia of how we, as social scientists, can look and say whether a police agency is out of round, shall we say, in terms of their rate of shootings, we can start to look at this. And we can start to explain what might be accounting for the variation in the level of deadly force across police departments. But that is part of it. I have heard that expressed, and I just think that's a poor argument.

CORNISH: What are the consequences of that lack of transparency, especially when it comes to dealing with the community - dealing with public trust?

KLINGER: I think the major problem is that when citizens wish to get information about all sorts of things about government, they can theoretically get it - you know, how much this state spends on education versus that state - how many people died in traffic accidents - this, that and the other thing. It's all there. So citizens go, holy mackerel. Why in the world, if I'm interested in probably the most important thing that the state can do, i.e. take a life, I can't get that information? And that leads to distrust.

We need to know. I might not or other researchers might not agree with their conclusions. But we all as citizens have the right to know when the state executes its ultimate power. And when I say execute I don't mean the cops are executing people. I mean simply taking that step. And for us not to know that is really a sad commentary on the state of our republic.

CORNISH: David Klinger, thanks so much for talking with us.

KLINGER: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: David Klinger - he's an associate professor at the University of Missouri in St. Louis and author of the book "Into The Kill Zone: A Cop's Eye View Of Deadly Force." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.