Ferguson, Missouri. Cleveland, Ohio. Staten Island, New York. Eutawville, South Carolina.
In each place, individuals — all unarmed except for a child carrying a pellet gun — died at the hands of police officers. All of the dead were black. The officers involved, white.
To many Americans, it feels like a national tidal wave. And yet, no firm statistics can say whether this spate of officer-involved deaths is a growing trend or simply a series of coincidences generating a deafening buzz in news reports and social media.
“We have a huge scandal in that we don’t have an accurate count of the number of people who die in police custody,” says Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a leading scholar on policing and civil liberties. “That’s outrageous.”
There are some raw numbers, but they’re of limited value.
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, for instance, track justifiable police homicides — there were 1,688 between 2010 and 2013 — but the statistics rely on voluntary reporting by local law enforcement agencies and are incomplete. Circumstances of the deaths, and other information such as age and race, also aren’t required.
The Wall Street Journal, detailing its own examination of officer-involved deaths at 105 of the nation’s 110 largest police departments, reported last week that federal data failed to include or mislabeled hundreds of fatal police encounters.
Put simply: It’s hard to know for certain what is happening on the ground.
“We want a comprehensive picture … so people can be aware of what really goes on, and not the claptrap put out by people with agendas,” says David Klinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has studied use of deadly force and hopes to get funding for a pilot project that could provide better national statistics.
To those who have taken to the streets to protest in recent weeks, that lack of context is almost beside the point.
“These are communities that have been living for generations under the yoke of what has felt like an occupying force,” says Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder of UCLA’s Center for Policing Equity. “And regardless of what any of the stats are ever going to say, if we don’t address the reality of that experience, then we’re shooting ourselves in the foot in our attempts to make good on our promise of democratic principles.”
The high-profile cases have erupted one after the other.
On July 17, 43-year-old Eric Garner died after officers tried to arrest him on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes on a New York City street. Cellphone video captured the scene as one officer wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck, and the black man repeatedly pleaded, “I can’t breathe.”
Tensions escalated on Aug. 9, when Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.
On Nov. 22, a Cleveland officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice after responding to reports of an armed man at a city park. Rice had been holding a pellet gun.
Two days later, officials announced that a grand jury had declined to return an indictment in the Brown case. Fires from the resulting protests in Ferguson had barely stopped smoldering when word came there would be no charges against the officer in New York City. Again, angry protesters marched.
Then a grand jury in Orangeburg County, South Carolina, returned a murder indictment Wednesday against a former small-town police chief in the May 2011 shooting death of an unarmed black man.
Richard Combs, who was the sole officer for the town of Eutawville, had been charged with official misconduct for shooting Bernard Bailey, who had come to the town hall to argue about a ticket his daughter had received. Combs’ attorney questioned prosecutor David Pascoe’s motives in seeking the murder charge.
“He’s trying to make it racial, because his timing is perfect,” John O’Leary said. “He’s got all the national issues going on, so they want to drag him (Combs) in and say, ‘Look what a great community we are here, because we’re going to put a police officer who was doing his job in jail for 30 years.’ That’s wrong.”
Walker, co-author of the book “The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity, and Crime in America,” says much of the anger out there comes from years of conflict between the black community and law enforcement.
“Within the African-American community, there has been an experience of disrespect, offensive language, mistreatment in terms of stops and so on,” he says. “And there’s a sense that the police are out to get them.”
It’s not just the killings that have minority communities “fed up,” says Inimai Chettiar of the New York University law school’s Brennan Center for Justice.
“African-American communities are tired of being over-policed, over-prosecuted, sent to prison, having men taken away from their communities, having families broken,” says Chettiar, director of the center’s Justice Program. “I think there’s much more than just an instinctual sense that there is something amiss in these communities. I think people are tired of ‘tough on crime.'”
Whether such incidents are on the rise, says Walker, “we’re certainly more aware. And, certainly, the digital revolution has had a huge impact.”
Goff compares it to the ice bucket challenge phenomenon of this past summer — in which a series of viral videos raised millions of dollars for research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
“Once something is trending, so that it’s in the American consciousness, people become aware of it,” he says. “The reason we’re hearing about this is because we’re hearing about it. It has its own momentum.”
Goff has begun work on creating a policing database, with funding from the Department of Justice, the National Science Foundation and private groups. He says it would include not just deaths but all police stops and uses of force.
“Is it getting better? Is it getting worse? What are the actual numbers?” asks Goff. “You know, when a plane crashes, it feels all of a sudden like it’s not safe to fly. But if you look at the statistics, it’s way safer to fly — and always has been — than to drive a car.”
The Department of Justice is investigating possible federal civil rights violations in the Ferguson case and has opened an investigation into Garner’s death in New York. On Thursday, the agency reached an agreement to reform the Cleveland Police Department after concluding that officers there use excessive and unnecessary force far too often — an investigation prompted in part by the deaths of the two black occupants of a car involved in a high-speed chase. In that case, 13 officers fired 137 shots at the unarmed suspects.
Chettiar is hopeful that recent events will create the “political and public will” to begin gathering and analyzing the facts.
“In addition to personal stories,” she says, “statistics help people change their minds.”
AP writers David Crary in New York and Meg Kinnard in Orangeburg, South Carolina, contributed to this story.