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System For Reporting Police Killings Unreliable, Study Finds


A new statistical analysis by the Justice Department estimates that the government has been undercounting the number of people killed by police. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, it's been undercounting those stats by half.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Last year during the protests over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, it was widely reported that the statistics on police-involved deaths weren't very good. The official numbers usually come in between 4 and 500 per year. But it now turns out that that's way low.

DUREN BANKS: We've been capturing about half. And so we estimated that it's a little more than 900 of these deaths a year.

KASTE: That's Duren Banks, one of the criminologists who just did a close analysis of the death numbers for the Bureau of Justice Statistics. They tracked down a sampling of the data back to the sources - the states and the local agencies - and then they broadened that out to estimate the national undercount. The reason the numbers are so bad is because reporting is voluntary and policing in this country is extremely decentralized.

BANKS: There's more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. Without mandated requirements for reporting, they were using whatever resources they had at their disposal. And sometimes they had good resources to do that and could work with law enforcement agencies to get the information, and sometimes they did not have the resources to that.

KASTE: So does it matter, the fact that the true number of deaths is probably twice as big as the official statistics? Jim St. Germain thinks so. He works with youth in New York who are at risk of getting arrested.

JIM ST. GERMAIN: It makes a huge difference. I think it shows us that we have not been honest about how we provide law enforcement services to the communities that we're working with.

KASTE: He gave testimony to the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which just released its blueprint for police reform. And one of its recommendations is to require police departments to report these death statistics, along with details about the circumstances and the victims. The task force co-chair, Laurie Robinson, says good numbers can build community trust.

LAURIE ROBINSON: It's a notion of transparency, of open information. And communities need to really have a good sense that they understand how force is being used.

KASTE: But for now, the requirement of death stats from police departments is still just a recommendation. As things stand, the numbers remain vague. In fact, criminologists say all we can really say for sure is that police kill more people in America than in other developed countries, but exactly how many, we still don't know. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.

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